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‘High Season’

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
June 24, 1988


Clare Peploe
Jacqueline Bisset;
Irene Papas;
James Fox;
Kenneth Branagh;
Sebastian Shaw;
Robert Stephens
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In Greece, the hyperintense mixture of sun, heat and transcendently beautiful scenery seems to create its own slightly pickled state of mind, and that's the mood of Clare Peploe's "High Season."

Set on the Greek island of Rhodes, in a tiny village populated by an odd collection of natives, expatriate artists and travelers of all descriptions, this droll, sophisticated comedy has an air of delectable silliness. Almost immediately it has you giggling, and though its effects are subtle, they're immensely pleasurable. Before you know it, you're drunk on the film's imagery and its seductive rhythms.

The sheer beauty of the setting, especially the lush brilliance of Chris Menges' cinematography, would be enough to recommend it. But Peploe's approach isn't merely pictori- al. She uses the island's sumptuousness to establish a kind of poetic kingdom by the sea, rich symbolic soil for her characters' antics to take root in.

These antics, more than any plot, make up the substance of "High Season." Peploe's subject is hard to express in a phrase. Themes are introduced, but not systematically articulated. Instead, she's more interested in her characters' world view, and exploring the unstructured lives they lead in their artist-colony paradise.

Katherine (Jacqueline Bisset), an English photographer who lives on the island with her 13-year-old daughter Chloe (Ruby Baker), is at the center of the film's ensemble. She's dedicated herself to recording the wonders of her island paradise. A book of her pictures has just been published, but it's not doing well, intensifying her ever-present money worries and forcing her to consider selling her house.

Just from the easy way in which mother and daughter chat on the bed, we immediately become invested in Katherine's designs to preserve her idyllic life. Peploe's ability to find these delicate human moments inside the comedy is part of what makes this film such an original. There's such satisfaction in simply watching these people interact that the comedy is a bonus. And when their old friend, the revered art historian Basil Sharp (Sebastian Shaw) arrives and we see the deep reserves of affection that pass between the three of them, this impression is reinforced.

"High Season" is frothy in the way one associates with the comedies of the '30s, and its lightness recalls Ernst Lubitsch, but with an earthier, more modern sensibility. The interrelationships between the characters are deftly balanced. There's a British civil servant named Rick, played by Kenneth Branagh, who makes a marvelous dolt; his flighty, uncomprehending wife Carol (Lesley Manville); Yanni (Paris Tselios), the young shopkeeper with a red streak in his hair, and his mother Penelope (Irene Pappas), who hordes nail polish and abhors her son's cynical disregard for local heritage; and Katherine's estranged sculptor husband Patrick (James Fox), who's been commissioned by Yanni to pay homage in stone to "The Unknown Tourist."

Peploe and her brother Mark, who cowrote the script (Mark Peploe also cowrote "The Last Emperor" with Clare's husband Bernardo Bertolucci), have created a plot line that involves Katherine's attempts to find a buyer for a vase, believed to be quite valuable, which was presented to her by Sharp many years earlier. Of greater interest than the narrative are the little digressions, like Katherine's quest to have her Niagara toilet repaired, or an almost imperceptible gag involving Patrick's greenish sneakers.

These moments bring out the best in the cast, too. Bisset's acting skills have not always been her chief assets, but in scenes like the one in which she splashes in the moonlight, nude and slightly drunk, with Rick, who's restored the whoosh to her Niagara, she makes a radiantly sensuous comedian. She never loses her comic footing, and perhaps her most fully realized moments as an actress are the scenes with the dapper Shaw.

But Shaw, who's in his eighties (and is perhaps best known for playing Darth Vader in "Return of the Jedi"), is the sort of elegant pro who makes everybody looks good. He gives the movie its wise soul.

Everybody makes a contribution, though. Peploe packs a lot into the film. There are nine characters (not counting the donkeys and goats) and there's always something going on. But her style is so unforced that you don't feel rushed to absorb the details she serves up. This is her first feature-length film -- her short, entitled "Couples and Robbers," was nominated for an Oscar two years ago -- but already she displays an easy assurance.

"High Season" is the rare comedy that gets funnier the more you think about it. There are a few bumpy moments as Peploe draws the various story lines together, but by then you're in such a relaxed, responsive mood that it hardly seems to matter. In this state of mind, the last thing you want to do is quibble.

High Season, at the Outer Circle, is rated R and contains some adult situations.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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