For Rhyme and Reason, Just Say 'Yes'

Well-versed: Simon Abkarian and Joan Allen speak in couplets as lovers in
Well-versed: Simon Abkarian and Joan Allen speak in couplets as lovers in "Yes." (By Nicola Dove)
By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 29, 2005

It's not just any illicit affair, this passionate liaison between an Irish American married woman (Joan Allen) and a Lebanese surgeon (Simon Abkarian), who are both living in London. In Sally Potter's "Yes," their relationship becomes the jagged interface between two clashing worlds, cultures, genders and personalities in the post-9/11 universe.

Their running arguments have another significant element: They're recited in verse. In fact, everyone in the movie speaks in rhymed couplets, mostly in iambic pentameter. It's as if Shakespeare, Ingmar Bergman and Dr. Seuss had decided to collaborate on a movie. No surprise that the movie comes from Potter, whose "Orlando," an adaptation of the Virginia Woolf book, featured a main character (played by Tilda Swinton) who lives for hundreds of years and changes gender.

Some may dismiss "Yes" as pretentious, perhaps even boring. Others might succumb to their sense of realism and dismiss the artifice of the experiment. (We tend to walk around with ingrained rules in our head, regarding movies.) But for those who accept Potter's premise -- and why not embark on a challenging, enriching experience? -- this is a unique, bold adventure of the soul.

We're given the heads-up about Potter's approach in the opening prologue, in which a chambermaid (Shirley Henderson) addresses the camera with what becomes a dizzying, rhyming treatise on many subjects, including the ways that servants become intimate with the most private of doings in a household and the infinite universe of dirt, germs and microscopic worlds literally under our noses.

She functions as the Greek chorus to the main story, which involves the unnamed Irish American woman, a microbiologist whose work involves global travel. Now living in London, she is in a frustrating marriage with the well-meaning but chilly English politician Anthony (Sam Neill). So when the also-unnamed Lebanese surgeon, who's working as a chef, starts flirting with her, she's vulnerable.

Their passion is immediate, playful and provocative. They joke, for instance, that for his land, the significant crop is apricots; for hers, potatoes. But in a short time, it seems, the magic is crushed by the weight of the world. For him, she comes to represent the morally bankrupt Western world. For her, he's a reflexive hater, blinded by ideology. They are unconscious ambassadors of their tribes, airing all their reasonable and unreasonable attitudes and arguments.

Their romantic situation draws in other people, including her husband and their child, as well as the ethnically diverse kitchen staff members who work with the Lebanese man and have their own angry attitudes about religion, economic disparity and gender. Thanks to the wit and inventiveness of Potter's language, a risky venture stays vital and alive. (See Film Notes on Page 30.) The movie is far from cut and dried, however. It's very sensual, thanks to the note-perfect partnership between Allen and Abkarian, who throw themselves into the parts with persuasive conviction. All the performers are strong, in fact, particularly Henderson, who exudes ironic wisdom with a pixieish sweetness. And most compellingly of all, this movie is compassionate and hopeful. It's about the ultimate power of "yes," not the grim inevitability of "no."

YES (R, 100 minutes) -- Contains obscenity and sexual content. At Landmark's E Street Cinema.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company