Words and Pictures
This review first appeared in the Sunday Star-Times, 15th June 2014
In the spirit of not judging a book by its cover, just ignore the trailer for Words and Pictures. Irritating and unoriginal, it will tell you that Clive Owen (with American accent and curmudgeonly demeanour) is embroiled in a war of words with Juliette Binoche (tightly accented with shrewish demeanour) that may or may not see the pair fall in love despite their purported rivalry.
Well, true, this is kind of what happens. And the accents are patchy at best. But while Words and Pictures isn’t going to win the Booker or Turner prize for its craft, it’s smarter than its trailer suggests and manages to be a mildly diverting, engagingly-performed bundle of clichés.
Dishy Owen is Jack Marcus, a once brilliant, alcoholic writer clinging to his job at a tonky prep school in the United States. He hurls witty word games across the staffroom at beleaguered colleagues until Binoche’s embittered fine arts teacher Delsanto arrives one day and steals his eye. But she has her own physically-manifested problems, “covered up” by a curt attitude towards the educators and learners alike. When Marcus instigates a battle between his advanced English class and her fine artists under the rather limp premise that “words are more important than pictures”, the students are enlivened in their studies – but their lecturers need to learn a lesson or two of their own.
Competent but uninspiring, the film is directed by Fred Schepisi who accumulated several hits under his belt throughout the 80s and 90s (notably the Lindy Chamberlain story Evil Angels and Six Degrees of Separation) but hasn’t wowed audiences in recent years. This lull may account for why Words and Pictures is fine on many levels, and even has the odd charm (the school students give their roles everything they’ve got and there are some nice moments in class), but is ultimately unaffecting.
Audience members who relish word games may find Marcus’s compulsive etymology keeps them amused, and remarkably, despite the often clunky dialogue and aforementioned Transatlantic speech patterns, Owen and Binoche have an easy chemistry making it a pleasure to see an older (but not that old) couple coupling.
But Marcus (of course) wears a corduroy jacket and Delsanto is (of course) at pains with her art, and at times it’s all a bit tedious and overplayed. If one were marking this as an assessment, one might say the film does the bare bones of what is expected but lacks the flair or originality to lift it much above a simple Achieved.