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May 11, 2006

A very high-class feel good movie: Junebug - Phil Morrison

Posted by Richard D. North

Directed by Phil Morrison, Written by Angus MacLachlan
certificate 15, 2005

Junebug is the Sideways (2004) of its year. That's to say it is about the relation of sophisticated America to its redneck and earthy traditions. And it's as good a movie, too.

Madeleine - the heroine of Junebug - is one of those fey but unyielding Englishwomen who has been the delight of novelists especially female novelists forever. She's running a "primitives" art gallery in Chicago. On the evening of one preview she finds herself having a feisty knee-trembler with George (Alessandro Nivola) a handsome, quiet American, and shortly after marries him. They head south to his homelands, where both his family and a non-too-bright painter, David Wark (Frank Hoyt Taylor) beckon. She half wants to get to know the first, and definitely wants to cosy-up to the latter. You may wonder what she sees in her new husband, and it's certainly moot. But the sex is great (and is mercifully more suggested than shown), and it's pretty plausible that he has a certain something.

You may wonder, too, whether the untutored painter could be quite as back-woodsy as he's here portrayed. The film's website tells us stuff which suggests that the Frank Hoyt Taylor knows more about that scene than we are ever likely to. But even if the rural counter-idyll is laid-on a bit thick, the film lays out a challenge: why might not such a figure exist?

The wonder of this very good film is that one soon leaves small cavils behind. The things which the film's director Phil Morrison and its writer Angus MacLachlan want to show us, they do. What they decide is important, becomes so.

And so we arrive, with Madeleine, in the midst of a taciturn, grumpy family which fairly crackles with tension. But it has nurtured Ashley (Amy Adams) a yearning and yacking daughter who immediately spots in the newcomer a ray of sunshine. It's as though the heavily-pregnant Ashley had always believed there were such fabulous creatures as Madeleine, and she - like us - is immediately drawn to the out-of-town sophisticate. And it isn't just glamour Ashley adores in Madeleine: it's cleverness too.

Embeth Davidtz's Madeleine is wafer thin, and tough as nails. The actress has the loveliness of a Kristen Scott Thomas but looks as though she'd be much more willing to riddle the boiler or muck out the pigs. She gives us just the right posh English ability to be gracious and dirty. As she deals with her new husband's family, one feels her to be drawing on generations of well-concealed noblesse oblige.

We meet the mother-in-law, a growling, bossy sort, not unenticing: she seems to want to welcome Madeleine only if the young lovely is prepared to concede that marriage is a life sentence. We meet the disaffected brother-in-law: scowly and sweary. Poor Johnny: he makes exactly the hopeless mistake which pour out of any of us, his occasional kindness tripped up by his ineptness. And Madeleine's father-in-law meanders through, hardly more articulate than the tongue-tied, prophetic savant artist whose mark she badly needs on a document. Eugene, the dad, does a bit of desultory wood-turning, and maybe the idea is that he's condemned to chintzy craftwork by the same lack of ambition which has landed him in the suburbs. The grumpy Johnny works in a pottery warehouse - so even he has a relationship with the decorative and it's made the more poignant by its being distant and low-rent.

So far, one might think that the movie is no more than a reprise of one of the oldest tropes of movie-making. This is the idea of the American countryside (or the cowboy, sailing boats, carpentry or horses) as redemptive of the damage urban industrialisation has wrought on the manifest destiny of the American pioneer. The Horse Whisperer is perhaps the sharpest example of the genre.

But Junebug is much more than a reworking of this theme. At first we think we are being invited to sneer at the suburban family which is neither sophisticated and arty nor primitive and arty - neither Madeleine nor Wark. The fun starts when we find that the family is not ordinarily dysfunctional: it is profane and racketty, maybe. But this is a family which goes to the kind of Baptist church the sophisticates of the US and the UK find unaccountable. In Morrison and MacLachlan's hands, the church is sterling and beautiful. The pastor is solid and connected to his flock. And to the husband as well.

The surprise, for us as for Madeleine, is that George is a wonderful singer, and his rendition of what might have been a mawkish hymn is earthy and plain and yet ethereal. The man remains a mystery. He is impressive but self-contained almost null. But the paint is beginning to be applied to his numbers. He is absent a lot: but is he reverting to type, or deepening in mystery?

And so we begin to spot and relish the variety and number of come uppances the movie is doling out. Down home religion turns out to be serious and rooted. And it is certainly less problematic than the anti-Semitic faith of the primitive painter. But then he too is serious: his work is one long meditation on slavery and religion, even if it is in small ways racist. We find we can't afford to feel superior to anyone, much. We are made to see that art doesn't redeem any more than much more quotidian solutions to life's dilemmas. There's no more reason to sneer at Eugene's wood-turning than at Wark's daubs. We learn to admire Ashley's optimism and her determination to make her marriage work. We come to see that she will in the end bring Johnny out of himself, and needn't cripple him to tame him. We feel that she'll make a great mother, and share Madeleine's growing sense that she's been trumped by this apparent clot.

Perhaps the most impressive trick of the piece is the way it allows Madeleine to accumulate sympathies and understanding. She doesn't undergo any formulaic conversions. The scales don't fall from her eyes. At the end of the movie, George is hugely relieved to get away from his "home", but she's made of sterner stuff. The take-home message is that she'll be back. So this is a feel-good movie after all. It's just a very high class one.

Richard D. North is the author of Rich is Beautiful: A Very Personal Defence of Mass Affluence and of Mr Blair's Messiah Politics: Or what happened when Bambi tried to save the world.

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