The Good: Good acting, Interesting story idea
The Bad: Plot elements far too far apart, Casting, Character inconsistencies
The Basics: A decent idea dissipates under the pressure of keeping the idea interesting in the film medium, Songcatcher is somewhat disappointing.
Songcatcher is one of those movies that has an interesting idea that is almost impossible to execute on film. This is a problem a lot of movies have; they have an idea that will take roughly a minute and a half to show and they build a ninety minute piece around the quickly executed good idea. This movie is not that scope of badness, but rather its problem is in that while the idea is an interesting one, it is an interesting idea that does not transfer to film well. This movie - eliminating many of the character aspects - would have been an excellent and intriguing magazine article. Allow me to explain.
Songcatcher tells the story of Dr. Lily Penleric, who leaves a comfortable teaching assignment for the mountainous regions of the United States. There she discovers ancient European ballads being sung by mountain folk who have been singing the songs for generations with a new American flavor. Dr. Penleric utilizes the opportunity to record this precious academic find and finds herself entangled with the lives of those around her, including a precocious young student, Deladis, a blandly good looking mountain man, Tom Bledsoe, and her lesbian sister and fellow-teacher, Elna.
The problem, partially, is that in the attempt to make the story interesting, Songcatcher becomes a bit jumbled. There is too much going on. Penleric sees a whirlwind around her: a corporation attempting to buy up all the land at cutthroat prices, resentment from Tom that his grandmother and her songs are being exploited, a cheating husband living with another woman while his wife goes through a painful childbirth, her sister's lesbianism, the townsfolk's violent reaction, and pressures from home to either return to the university or give the project over to another (male) professor. Instead of being about the process of getting together a collection of ancient ballads, it becomes cluttered with many other stories and none of them are explored to their satisfying resolution.
Take, for example, Lily's sister Elna. Lily returns from a hard day of listening to Tom's mother sing, excited, and walks in on Elna making love with her fellow teacher, Harriet. Lily, storms out angry, decrying the relationship. While I fully acknowledge that I am a liberal living in the 21st century, this conflict seems so forced and dull. Why? Lily leaves the university because she is upset that her beau would not help her become a full professor at the university. Lily is all upset about being viewed not as an individual, but as a woman. So, it seems strange that Lily would be so prejudiced against Elna for being different and being an individual and such. I'd go so far as to say that it's even sillier for Lily to be prejudiced against Elna as all of Lily's conflicts come in the form of men, so that Elna could escape those conflicts and find real love . . . But even this conflict disappears when the local hicks - there are good mountainmen and there are hicks - burn down Elna and Harriet's school and Harriet simply leaves. There's no resolution between Elna and Lily on this issue that, for a time in the movie, is very important to them both.
The main problem with the film is that most of the conflicts are resolved the same way; something happens in the plot, but there is no actual resolution. And all along the way, the relevance and importance of the music is diluted until, when the school is burned and Lily loses her work, the viewer feels bad, but not terribly shocked nor devastated by the loss. We're left with a "pleh" feeling.
Add to the character problems and the plethora of plots that are spaced at weird intervals, the fact that the casting is pretty poor and you have an unsuccessful movie. When the costumes are going to be similar, the responsibility of the casting director is to place people in each role that are distinct and obvious. In short, the viewer should have no trouble recognizing a character. While all of the men easily fall into that criteria, the women are not so lucky. The main problem is with two of the leads: Janet McTeer, who plays Lily, looks almost identical throughout the piece to E. Katherine Kerr, who plays Harriet. Both women are fine actresses, but put them in white corsets and hats with their hair up (as both characters are in pretty much the entire film) and they are distinguishable only by Kerr's glasses. But then, McTeer is seen wearing glasses at points through the movie as well. And to make the matter worse; the glasses are awfully similar!
I do wish to reiterate that Songcatcher has an initially intriguing idea, but that this movie fails to execute - or illustrate - the potential of that idea. If you love long, slow movies, especially ones with good cinematography, more power to you. I enjoy them quite a bit. I'm still sore The Red Violin (reviewed here!) doesn't get more attention. But Songcatcher doesn't deliver on any of the fronts that it sets itself up for. Instead, the story of being a musical archaeologist gets buried in several stories about different factions of the mountain people.
So, if you want an intriguing story of music and history, watch The Red Violin. If you want something else music and history related, watch Amedeus (reviewed here!). If you want something else entirely, try Songcatcher. But I can't recommend it.
For other works with Aidan Quinn, be sure to visit my reviews of:
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© 2012, 2004 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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