Adapted by Harold Pinter from the Russell Hoban novel, "Turtle Diary" concerns the small triumphs and small sadnesses of little people in a lonely world. Beaten down by life, William Snow (Ben Kingsley), once a businessman with big ideas, has retreated to a tiny bookstore where he works as a clerk. Back in his cramped flat, he shares a kitchen and bathroom with a piggy neighbor who leaves drippings all over the stove and dirt in the tub.
Captivated by the giant turtles in the local zoo, and pained by their captivity, Snow has the idea of kidnaping them and returning them to the great ocean. Neaera Duncan (Glenda Jackson), a shy, withdrawn writer who cherishes her pet water beetle, has the same idea, and with the complicity of the turtles' keeper, they become partners in crime.
There is a comic element built into all this fussing over the heist of some turtles, and at times "Turtle Diary" has some of the low-key goofiness of an old Ealing Studios caper comedy. But Pinter isn't interested in absurdity -- he's interested in Absurdity. Whether you're taking turtles to the sea or rolling a rock up the hill and watching it roll down again, you're making the best of this mess called life. What's important is that you have a sense of purpose, however silly.
And as a water beetle is to a sea turtle, so are these characters' lives after the theft. Snow becomes a mensch, romancing his saucy coclerk in the bookstore and standing up for his right to a clean stove. Neaera, too, takes a lover. The alternative, Pinter reminds us (quite cloddishly), is suicide.
Kingsley and the generally fine Jackson don't bring much life to the story. They're just playing meek, and in Kingsley's case, in particularly annoying fashion, all bug-eyes and smothered smiles and stiff attitudes. And director John Irvin directs them in an off-putting, chilly style. In "Turtle Diary," people don't address each other or relate to each other physically in the same space -- they're either sealed off in their own close-ups or together in the same shot, staring parallel, like barflies looking in the mirror.
Irvin has the pair relate to each other by intercutting shots of them with shots of the great turtles swimming around, as the traditional, string-heavy score swells in the background. Like everything in "Turtle Diary," the bond between people is abstract, intellectual. Irvin's highly stylized approach is apt enough for Pinter, but it also exacerbates everything that is phony and cloying about Pinter's work here.
You could program a computer to churn out the dialogue of Pinter's screenplay, which almost religiously obeys the same formula: A states sentence X, B repeats a piece of sentence X (often in a questioning tone), A restates sentence X with inverted syntax. It's a sterile, uninvolving style, and it makes what might otherwise have been moving in the story seem like a laborious exercise in examining a metaphor. Pinter pares down everything in life and passes it off for insight. This isn't reality, it's just smaller.
Turtle Diary, opening today at the Circle MacArthur, is rated PG.