Directed by Angela Pope. Starring Martin Donovan, Joely Richardson, Ian Hart, Jason Flemyng, Sam Bould. (1996, NR, 105 min.)
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., July 11, 1997
Late one night, injured nine-year-old Ollie (Bould) comes running to the home of his estranged father Martyn (Donovan) and concocts some tenuous story about the source of his bloodied brow. Martyn immediately becomes suspicious about what really transpired and when shortly thereafter his only child is discovered to have three broken bones in his hand, Martyn becomes determined to uncover the truth. Throughout, Ollie holds his tongue and reveals little to his father, although the audience is allowed to see that the probable culprit is the new live-in boyfriend (Flemyng) of Ollie's mother Hannah (Richardson). Complicating matters is that Hannah and Martyn are divorced and Hannah's custody decree stipulates that Ollie may spend no overnight visits with Martyn, a physician who has set up residence with his gay lover Tom (Hart). Early on, we think we can see where this British drama disguised as a suspense story is heading. But that would be presumptuous. The movie's wonderfully drawn characters create a web of emotions that is deep and intricate. Hardly a simple story about child abuse and the legal custody problems faced by gay parents, Hollow Reed treats each of its characters with sympathy and compassion. Hannah is still smarting from the failure of her marriage to Martyn, a marriage which appears to have been Martyn's last desperate attempt to prove to himself that he was straight. The presence of her new lover, Frank, restores some of her lost self-esteem, and even once she becomes aware of Frank's violence toward her son, she wants ever so much to believe that it will never happen again. Amazingly, she manages to remain a sympathetic character. And even Frank's abusive tendencies can be traced to his own childhood experiences. The custody fight prompts turmoil in Martyn and Tom's relationship, as Tom moves out in an effort to present a more wholesome front for the social welfare inspectors. And at the heart of it all is the taciturn Ollie, so afraid that his own critical needs will destroy the precarious happiness of all the adults that dominate his world. He's the underwater decoy, surreptitiously drawing breath through the metaphorical hollow reed that protrudes gingerly through the smooth surface sheen. Although the direction occasionally seems too schematic, the movie's outstanding performances -- Donovan (best known for his work with Hal Hartley), Richardson (rapidly becoming the crown jewel in the talented Richardson acting dynasty), Hart (so memorable for his note-perfect portrayal of John Lennon in Backbeat), and young, inscrutable Bould -- make Hollow Reed an acutely nuanced study.