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By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
November 20, 1992


John Duigan
Noah Taylor;
Thankie Newton;
Nicole Kidman
Not rated

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In his new film, "Flirting," Australian writer-director John Duigan continues to show the same mastery of delicate emotional states that he displayed in his previous movie, "The Year My Voice Broke." And if that film displayed his promise, this one announces his arrival.

This brilliant sequel -- it's more of a continuation, really -- furthers the story of Danny Embling (Noah Taylor), the troubled young hero who came of age in "The Year My Voice Broke" and who now finds himself an underclassman at St. Albans, a prestigious boarding school in rural Australia. The prissy boy's school setting is so familiar as to be cliche; the film's scenes of boys growing into men together under the oppressive thumbs of their headmasters have been staged a thousand times -- so many times, in fact, that I didn't think I could sit still for yet another tilling of this overused ground. But Duigan brings such originality and pure insight to his subject -- including Embling's gossamer courtship of a spunky Ugandan beauty named Thandiwe (Thandie Newton) -- that it seems spanking new.

In the years since the first film, Embling has grown into a rather odd sort of duck. He stutters, but in his mind this condition exists only to signify his innate superiority; he bears the abuse heaped on him by his schoolmates as a natural aristocrat, secure in his ranking at the bottom of the ladder.

Embling cultivates this air of romantic existentialism. His heroes are Sartre and Camus and Cassius Clay. (The year is 1965.) And he takes strength from being thought of as a weirdo and a loser because it confirms his status as the "loner," the "stranger." He likes it that his pigeon-brained, rugby-playing classmates can't figure him out.

The truth is that Embling is smarter, more mature and more sophisticated than his classmates, and it takes about two minutes for Thandiwe to figure this out. Because she is black, Thandiwe is also something of an outsider, and immediately each recognizes the other as a soul mate, a fellow soldier in the private war against the real fools and losers of the world.

This kind of emotional precision -- that is, this ability to make the subtlest psychological distinctions -- is a rare gift, and Duigan gets full mileage out of it, especially in the intimate scenes between these star-crossed teenage lovers. Moments like the one in which Embling and Thandiwe have their first private time together, and agree only to "touch and kiss," are exquisitely sexy, a romantic's erotic dream come true. (Thandiwe says, guiding his hand up her thigh, "Welcome.") Every event has that urgent desperation of adolescent hyperbole when every sensation is a new one, and so the whole movie has this drunk-dizzy, head-over-heels quality.

Both Taylor and Newton are marvelous in their roles, but the magic touch here is a special tone, a uniquely personal color, that only Duigan can contribute. Though his movies start out seeming small, even miniature, they always seem to blossom before your eyes. With Duigan, what you see, at first, is not what you get.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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