Esther Kahn (2000) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski) and Tuna
The film begins with the adolescence of Esther Kahn, a girl from a working class Jewish family in Victorian England. She is an odd girl, sullen and uncommunicative except when she explodes in feral rages. Except for the outbursts, she seems incapable of feeling or expressing any emotions. Her family doesn't know whether she is retarded or autistic or just nutty. The rest of her family engages in various political and artistic discussions, but Esther has no interest in these discussions, or perhaps no ability to understand them.
You can imagine her family's surprise when she announces one day that she will become an actress. You can imagine that their patronizing amusement turns to absolute astonishment when she actually starts to move up in the theater world, taking ever larger roles in ever more important productions. Esther herself doesn't really seem to understand or care about the intellectual basis of the theater or acting. She simply follows her instincts, first mesmerized by the stage, then actually developing some form of craft under the tutelage of an aging actor with limited talent, but infinite appreciation for the art of acting.
As time goes on, her acting and her life work in cycles. In order to become a better actress, she must experience more in life. In order to emerge as an emotional human, she must become a better actress.
The film is languorously paced and two and a half hours long, and is opaque enough that even the person who wrote the official summary at IMDb suggests it is about an 18th century actress. It would be a challenge for an 18th century actress to be performing in an Ibsen play, although it would be a unique interpretation of A Doll's House if the woman playing Nora were 120 years old. Despite these flaws, I would normally recommend this as a sensitive arthouse film for the aesthetes who love the theater. In that sense, Esther Kahn is similar to "Illuminata". The reason I am not saying that is that this film has a great gaping flaw in it.
The lead actress, who dominates the camera in nearly every scene for two and a half hours, needs to show the transformation of Esther as a person and as an actress. This film, in order to work, requires an excellent lead actress to carry it. It needs Gwyneth or Kate Winslet or someone of their caliber. Instead, the lead is played by a complete non-actress named Summer Phoenix, who seems exactly the same at the end of her transformation as she was at the beginning.
If the film failed to show her transformation as a person, it didn't even try to show her development as an actress. Instead, the other characters commented on how she was doing. I may be wrong, but I think that if Winslet had been in the lead, they would have shown her performing at the various stages in her career, thus demonstrating her progress. They way they ended up doing it, with narration, not only sucked the life out of the dramatic structure of the film, but simply wasn't believable. They talked about her doing so well that she had a luxury apartment. Then they talked about her getting the lead in Ibsen's Hedda Gabler. Every time they made such a comment, I wondered if I was misunderstanding what they were saying, because Esther still seemed like the same 'tard she had been in adolescence. Every time they showed her on stage, she was walking robotically with a fish-eyed stare. Every time they showed her delivering lines offstage or in rehearsal, her interpretations of Ibsen were about at the level you might expect from Sylvester Stallone.
Summer's lack of acting ability was underscored by an irony in the casting. The brilliant actor Ian Holm played a bad actor. The non actor Summer Phoenix played a good actor. Yet Holm's comically bad efforts were still better than the best delivery ol' Summer could summon.
Many movies can survive one weak performance, even from the lead performer, but it just isn't possible when the lead is playing the part of a great actor. It worked out about the same as casting Chris Klein as Edmund Kean - even if they never showed him acting, could you believe Chris was the greatest performer of his day?
|Tuna's comments in
Scoopy's review made it sound so unappealing that I passed on it for two years.
Summer Phoenix plays a young Jewish
girl in turn of the century London, poor, overworked, and drawn within
herself. Then she discovers the theater. As hard as it is for her
parents to believe, she not only gets a small role, but gets
increasingly better parts. First, an older actor coaches her, then a
drama critic, who also takes her virginity. At this point, she has not
yet begun to "feel" yet, and doesn't feel like she is really an actress,
but when she lands a lead in Hedda Gabbler, the critic screws around on
her, and the pain of discovering him with another woman is enough to
stimulate her emotions, finally turning her into a great actress, after
a mere 163 minutes of running time.
Return to the Movie House home page