Main Page 
Love Life 
In Store 

        TV Listings

'Songcatcher': Listening for Love in All the Right Places
By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 6, 2001


    'Songcatcher' Aidan Quinn and Janet McTeer in "Songcatcher."
(Photo by James Bridges/Lions Gate Films)
Lily Penleric hears America singing, loud and clear. But since she's only a woman, nobody cares.

That's the gist of Maggie Greenwald's captivating new film "Songcatcher," about a heroic musicologist wandering the hollows and glades of Appalachia in the days before World War I, and listening. In the songs of this lost America, this high outback that neither indoor plumbing nor electricity has yet penetrated, Professor Penleric (Janet McTeer) hears the pure banshee wail of the Scottish reivers of three centuries ago or the fear of freezing during the long nights on the Irish bogs after the potato crop has failed for the fifth year in a row. She hears of duels and squabbles, of love fair and true, of perished nobility and bitter hatred, and death come on a pale horse, high and mighty.

As her name implies, she takes pen and records lyrics and in that way catches the songs like butterflies; she even hauls some primitive recording machinery into the hills. The sounds are too precious to be allowed to vanish; moreover, their complexity, artistry and brilliance vividly correct the idea that the people of the mountains are "primitive."

The music – encompassing more than 20 old folk songs, beautifully performed and integrated into the plot – is probably the best reason for seeing the film, but it is not the only one. McTeer, the British actress who was last seen in her Oscar-nominated role as a working-class Southern mama with a passel of man trouble in "Tumbleweeds," works the other side of the class divide in this role: Her Lily is autocratic, willful, passionate, tough as brass bushings, and as just as the day is long.

This is a real star turn, and McTeer dominates every scene with her clarity and power – and her eyes. She has this trick of isolating her irises against her whites, giving her a glare that could melt a vault door, which she uses to good effect. At the same time, she speaks with the refined diction of a proper Victorian lady, an accent so miles distant from her "Tumbleweed" twang you have to work overtime to remember they come from the same woman and that you're seeing a performance, not a reality.

The movie is brought to a limp, but never crippled, by its agenda, which is feminist but sensible. This is equally true of Greenwald's last very good film, "The Ballad of Little Jo." In that movie she understood what she called the "necessary man," a man of strength and integrity. In "Little Jo," the role fell to Bo Hopkins and in "Songcatcher" that mantle falls on Aidan Quinn. Where has he been for the past few years? Obviously not on a diet: The new Quinn is bulked up (almost unrecognizably) but seems somehow a good deal tougher and more commanding. He could become a star now, instead of a near-star. He plays Tom Bledsoe, a disillusioned mountain man who happens to have a natural genius for music, and who wakens in the staid Lily impulses her society has forbidden.

That's the narrative theme in "Songcatcher": liberation. Away from her prissy university, Lily discovers not only great music but great sex as well. Three other couples are featured in the somewhat overcomplicated plot, all of whom are likewise liberated by Lily's quest, including her lesbian sister (played by Jane Adams, another revelation in contrast to her high neurotic turn in the recent "Anniversary Party"). The movie is really about feeling the music, and letting it work its magic.

The film has a somewhat odd sensibility; it's a combination of Hollywood slickness and indie integrity. It's a highly professional project complete with exquisite production details and superb actors, yet its subject matter is so far out of the mainstream, it feels almost radical. It's powerful and powerfully musical. The few stereotypes – wimpy professors, brutal, hateful mountain men, wise earth mothers, nasty coal company men – get in the way of its freshness, but don't destroy it.

"Songcatcher" (PG-13, 105 minutes)Contains sexual situations and a little violence. At the Cineplex Odeon Dupont Circle and Cinema Arts Theatre.


Search Entertainment

Optional Keyword

powered by citysearch.com
More Search Options

showtimes and details

Janet McTeer filmography

Aidan Quinn filmography

© Copyright 2001 The Washington Post Company