Cinema: Disasterpiece Theater

New British films are up to stimulating mischief

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Forget the Official Secrets Act. All that the Brits are going to catch with that one is a few harmless former spies eking out their pensions with ripping yarns about the bad old days in MI5. No, what they need over there is an Unofficial Secrets Act -- something that will stop the English underclass from converting squalid youthful memories into rude, shrewd, occasionally lewd movies of the kind that have lately been jostling away at one another -- and at our innocent colonial funny bones. As a group they form a kind of Disasterpiece Theater, more blithely brutal than typically British, and likely to prove ruinous to the national image, not to mention the tourist trade.

Even the most mild mannered of these new movies, Withnail and I, is a shock to our expectations. American literati are, after all, conditioned to share the Lake poets' faith in the restorative powers of the pastoral: the thatch tight on the cottage roof, the peat glowing on the grate, the cattle posing for a painting by Constable. The vision is especially poignant if you are as deeply down as was the "and I" of the title (played by Paul McGann) and as angrily out as his roommate Withnail (Richard E. Grant) when they were aspiring actors in London two decades ago.

They fear that creatures unknown to science are gestating in the sink of their slum flat. They know their agents can give them just as short shrift by long distance. Perhaps a country visit will rescue their faith in the universe's orderliness. Well, they have reckoned without the rain, mud and chill. Or the bull in a neighbor's field. Or the queenly ardor of Withnail's Uncle Monty (a sweetly mad Richard Griffiths), who turns up to pursue his hopeless passion for "and I." Somehow, Wordsworth failed to mention these inconveniences.

Ambitious Withnail sees them as portents. If he cannot realize the simple dream of a healthful week in the country, what chance does he have of becoming the next Olivier? "And I" is more sanguine and delighted to get a job in provincial rep. Thus he begins that patient paddle up life's stream, in the course of which he will come to accept this experience for what it was -- a & youthful funk, to be recouped through laughter, not a great existential turning to be brooded on.

Acceptance! This is the preferred English path these days. What is missing in the new English sensibility, but not deeply missed, is a sentimentalized view of the misfortunate and the class animus that have energized English movies of the past 40 years. The new radicalism is psychological, not political, and it is often expressed as cheeky self-sufficiency.

No one expresses cheek more winsomely than the remarkable Emily Lloyd, 16, who plays Lynda, the teenage heroine of Writer-Director David Leland's Wish You Were Here! In the course of writing the film Personal Services -- a raffishly surreal account of Cynthia Payne's career as a divinely unhypocritical London madam that illuminated American screens early this year -- Leland learned enough about her early life to offer this prequel. And a marvelously uncluttered tale it is.

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