Tuesday, 16 January 2018

With or Without You (1999)

As a filmmaker Michael Winterbottom's had a very interesting career. He's still really hard to pin down even now, but to consider he made something as banal and as undemanding as this in the same year he made Wonderland, when he already had Jude, Butterfly Kiss and Welcome to Sarajevo under his belt, and was about to unleash 24 Hour Party People (my favourite) onto the world, is really strange.

With or Without You starts out as the story of a seemingly happily married Northern Irish couple, former RUC officer Vincent (Christopher Eccleston) and Rosie (Dervla Kirwan) who have something missing in their life: a baby. Try as they might they find it hard to conceive and achieve their dreams of being a family. Into this delicate situation comes Rosie's teenage penpal, Frenchman BenoĆ®t (Yvan Attal) who arrives in Belfast, homeless, loveless and jobless. Taking pity on him, Rosie invites him to stay and a difficult romantic triangle develops which threatens to become a quadrangle when Vincent's ex, flirty hairdresser Cathy (Julie Graham) starts to show signs of wanting to reignite the spark they once had. 

The best thing about With or Without You is that it is a film made and set in Northern Ireland in the late 1990s that doesn't have all that much to say about the Troubles. Certainly it's touched upon - Eccleston plays a former RUC man and Kirwan's father, played by Alun Armstrong, is a proud protestant in that 'I'm no bigot, but...' kind of tradition familiar to anyone who has a somewhat embarrassing older relative - but Winterbottom and his screenwriter John Forte keep it in the background rather than placing it front and centre. The problem with it is that as a romcom it's not all that funny or indeed that romantic: in fact, despite the best efforts of the cast involved, it's hard to really care about the characters or their relationship problems and I couldn't help but think that the issues surrounding infertility and how it impacts on the male ego in particular are largely ignored in favour of the rather easy love rival storyline. Eccleston is always good value, and his Belfast accent isn't too shabby either, even though he appears to be coasting a little here in a production that is obviously beneath his talent. Kirwan is someone I've never been a huge fan of but, with her late '90s pixie cut, I can certainly see the aesthetic appeal here. Attal is another performer I've never really warmed to, and nothing he contributes here has changed that. 

Winterbottom may indulge in some distinctive visuals (the camera often fades to white rather than black and shows scenes in 'windows' in a rather arty way) but they seem at odds with the otherwise documentarian approach of the film, and there's just no escaping the fact that this is really a rather light TV drama entertainment that has somehow made its way to the big screen. Despite taking its name from the eponymous hit from Irish rockers U2, the film's score is some rather out of place classical music, though old Bonio's classic does eventually rear his head for an in-car sing-a-long, as indeed does Joy Division's Love Will Tear Us Apart - a signpost of what was to come from Winterbottom. Thankfully something significantly better.

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