Designated Mourner, The (United Kingdom, 1997)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

If you were bored by My Dinner with Andre, The Designated Mourner isn't for you. If Spalding Gray's monologues put you to sleep, prepare to snooze through The Designated Mourner. And if you think Twister is perfectly paced, give The Designated Mourner a pass. This film, a series of often-disjointed ruminations about culture and class, demands active intellectual participation, and those who prefer motion pictures to be passive events will be profoundly unappreciative of its approach.

The Designated Mourner began life in 1996 as a stage play at London's National Theater. Directed by David Hare, written by Wallace Shawn, and starring Mike Nichols (yes, that Mike Nichols), Miranda Richardson, and David de Keyser, the production was a success, and the BBC agreed to provide funding for a film version. So, with the participation of all the stage principals, Shawn and Hare made the changes necessary to adapt The Designated Mourner for the screen. The result is this motion picture -- a deliberate, keen examination of thoughts and ideas that features a terrific performance from Nichols.

Bizarre as it might sound, there is actually a similarity between The Designated Mourner and Twister. Neither has a particularly coherent narrative. However, while 1996's second-highest grossing film filled the void with special effects that brought in more than $200 million at the domestic box office, The Designated Mourner plugs the hole with ideas and philosophical tangents, and will be lucky to garner one percent of Twister's take.

Describing The Designated Mourner's storyline is almost an exercise in futility. The film is basically a monologue delivered by Mike Nichols, who plays a character named Jack. He tells of how, as a young man, he fell in love with a woman, Judy (Miranda Richardson). Judy's father, Howard (David de Keyser), was a well-known author and liberal activist whose "capacity for contempt" for the right wing was boundless. However, while Jack was initially drawn to Judy and Howard's lifestyle, he soon grew weary of it, and, when it became apparent that their political beliefs might be dangerous, he abandoned ship, leaving them to suffer the consequences when the government cracked down on potential troublemakers.

Approximately 80% of The Designated Mourner is Jack talking. The other 20% presents comments and short soliloquies from Judy and Howard, who are sitting next to Jack, facing the camera. Occasionally, but only rarely, there's a bit of dialogue as they argue with one another about their perspectives of an event. Mostly, though, this is about Jack -- his thoughts, ideals, and still-open wounds. By the end of the film, he believes that he has found closure. But at what price for society at large?

At one point, Jack is described as being "lazy", and it's an apt term. He divides the world of art and culture into two categories: "high-brow" and "low-brow", and states that most people lie about liking the former while really preferring the latter. Jack pretends to read poetry, but doesn't understand it. Instead of curling up with a book of poems, he'd rather lie in bed masturbating or watching television. Judy, Howard, and their faceless friends are all "intellectuals" who appreciate life's artistic elements. So, when the government ruthlessly purges society of their number, the only ones left to remember their passions and causes are people like Jack. He's a survivor, not a hero. He'd prefer to remember that there once was something called "art" rather than fight to keep it alive.

It's easy to see The Designated Mourner as a cautionary tale: in a world where pop culture is becoming increasingly brain-dead, who will preserve art? Does anyone still read War and Peace for personal satisfaction? For that matter, how many children today read because they want to, not because they're told to? Europeans, who often view exported American culture as a polluting influence, may find that this film has more resonance for them than it does for U.S. audiences.

One of the delights of The Designated Mourner is the variety of topics that Jack touches on during his rambling account of his association with Judy and Howard. He discusses human motivation, poetry, morality, the ambiguity of identity, ego, government corruption, sex, pornography, and numerous other issues. Shawn's screenplay is laced with subtle humor and certain evocative phrases like "the colors in the park were quite edible."

From a technical perspective, nothing is done to "open up" the play. The three characters never move from their position around a table. They rarely speak to each other, almost always addressing their remarks to the camera. But the closeups permit the actors to perform with their features and eyes, which adds a dimension not readily available on stage. In a character and idea-based movie like this, cinematographer Oliver Stapleton's simple photographic choices seem to offer the best approach.

Is The Designated Mourner static? Indeed it is -- so much so, in fact, that there were moments when I squirmed a little. We're not used to movies like this -- no more than a handful have come out in the past few years. The Designated Mourner demands an ongoing effort from its audience. You get out of it what you put into it, which guarantees that its appeal will not extend beyond those who occasionally crave more than simple entertainment in their cinematic diet.

Designated Mourner, The (United Kingdom, 1997)

Director: David Hare
Cast: Mike Nichols, Miranda Richardson, David de Keyser
Screenplay: Wallace Shawn based on his play
Cinematography: Oliver Stapleton
Music: Richard Hartley
U.S. Distributor: First Look
Run Time: 1:35
U.S. Release Date: 1997-05-02
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Mature Themes)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1