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‘The Hours and Times’ (NR)

By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
November 17, 1992

Christopher Muench's "The Hours and Times" feels like an unfinished, suddenly discovered documentary from the early '60s, one that might have been made before "A Hard Day's Night." It features not four Beatles but one, John Lennon, and the group's manager, Brian Epstein, tracking their four-day getaway to Barcelona in April of 1963 -- just before the madness of Beatlemania. It's a love story of sorts -- Epstein's homosexual adventures were a source of fascination for Lennon, and Muench has built his taut 60-minute drama on the long-circulated rumors that Epstein's own passion for Lennon may have been requited on this particular holiday.

This is not tawdry Albert Goldman speculation, but a decidedly more genteel character study of two men whose friendship overcame more than sexual preference. Epstein (David Angus) was cultured, urbane and charming, his frame of reference informed by his upper-class background. Lennon (Ian Hart) was working-class raw, self-centered, curious but impatient. The slightly older Epstein wasn't just a manager: There was something paternal about him, and an attendant sense of propriety made his low-key (but also low-flash-point) passion for Lennon difficult to bear. There's a poignancy to his testing the sexual waters with Lennon, who alternately teases and mocks his mentor. To his credit, Muench does some teasing of his own, with a suggestiveness that's both verbal and physical, but he steers clear of sordid invention. There's a wonderful, inoffensive ambiguity to his construction.

Although there are some outdoor scenes in both Barcelona and Liverpool, most of the film is situated indoors, and most of that at the majestic Avenida Palace, the hotel where Lennon and Epstein stay. There are moments of reflection, but mostly there's a rush of dialogue, Epstein's mannered and fully reflective of his Jewish-homosexual duality, Lennon's more brittle and emotionally unkempt.

As Lennon, Hart is terrific, suggesting the euphoria of power that attends sudden fame, even as limited as it is at this stage. Hart looks very Young Lennon-ish, moving with a familiar frenetic energy and speaking in that Liverpudlian accent with unfettered emotion. There is an undercurrent of combativeness to his conversations, not only with Epstein, but with his wife, Cynthia (via phone), and a stewardess, Marianne (Stephanie Pack), encountered on the flight from England and invited to the hotel. Lennon may be goading Epstein here ("she's just a bird ... birds are harmless"), but he's also testing his own blooming magnetism. Happily, Marianne gives as good as Lennon, and their union is consummated not by sex but by dancing to her prized new Little Richard single. It's a delicious denouement.

Angus is quite fine as Epstein, for the most part self-controlled but also a creature of his own fantasies, and not above using despondency and self-pity to achieve his own ends. He and Lennon are both complex men, and it's rare that a complex relationship between men gets treated with such sensitivity.

"The Hours and Times" is shot in stark black-and-white, and is also absent the color of familiar Beatles tunes. The music that does crop up seems appropriate to Muench's intentions: a Catalan folk song, some flamenco guitar, Bach's Goldberg Variations. The Beatles never intrude; this is the story of a fragile friendship at an emotional crossroads, and it's portrayed with a subtlety and sensitivity that's rare and refreshing.

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