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‘Waterland’ (R)

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
November 07, 1992

"Waterland" retains the languorous rhythms but little else of Graham Swift's gorgeously written novel, a soulful tale of a middle-aged history professor drifting away on a tide of childhood memories. Set primarily in the tide-laved marshlands of East Anglia, it is a British cousin of "The Prince of Tides," a poignant internal journey turned inside out and made melodramatic with its well-intentioned transition to screen.

It's a wonder that the film works at all, considering that tweedy, tea-drinking Tom Crick (tormented Jeremy Irons) has been uprooted from his original post in a British high school and plopped down in Pittsburgh. It's no wonder his skeptical American pupils think he's going nuts when he starts reminiscing about the Fens -- lowlands reclaimed from the North Sea. He is indeed facing a crisis in his marriage to his childhood sweetheart Mary (Sinead Cusack), but he also hopes to show the teenagers that they, too, are part of history -- that history is only a story.

Crick draws out and befriends one boy, Brian (Ethan Hawke of "Dead Poets Society), who unfortunately begins to teleport into the past with his teacher. Together they go back to 1911 to visit Crick's maternal grandfather, a brewer whose strong Coronation beer plays a part in the ruination of Crick's future. At one point, the whole class travels from 1974 Pittsburgh in an open carriage back to the Fens, where they see young Tom (Grant Warnock) make quick, clumsy love to young Mary (Lena Headey) in an old stone mill. An unwanted pregnancy results in a series of tragedies that Crick and Mary have never dealt with, but can no longer ignore.

The film is utterly seductive when Warnock and dazzling newcomer Headey, who look remarkably like young versions of Irons and Cusack (his real-life wife), are coming of age so lustily in the empty wonder of the Fens. Crossed with canals and thick with reeds, the place comes dankly alive in the hands of Stephen Gyllenhaal, an American known for such TV dramas as "Paris Trout." Gyllenhaal directed from Peter Prince's decidedly eclectic screenplay, in which Swift's elegant, descriptive phrases coexist inelegantly with classroom vulgarisms. And there almost making it all work as a portrait in despondency and realization is Irons, a walking requiem to lost innocence.

"Waterland" is rated R for nudity and adult situations.

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