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Century

(Stephen Poliakoff, UK, 1994)


 


Surely one of the most noticeable and tiresome aspects of quality British cinema is the heavy hand it invariably employs when dramatising momentous shifts in history.

Whether the topic is the onset of Nazism or Thatcherism, the birth of the trade union movement or of rock'n'roll, British filmmakers often fit small-scale, personal stories into large-scale, historic ones in an extremely clumsy and unconvincing way.

Writer-director Stephen Poliakoff used to write this stuff for the stage – where it perhaps plays better – but now he perpetrates it on screen. His previous film Close My Eyes (1991) provided a typically laborious example, symbolising the spiritual emptiness of the Thatcher years through a joyless tale of brother-sister incest.

Century offers an even grander conceit. Set at the turn of this century, it follows the travails of Paul (Clive Owen), an aspiring doctor who joins a special research institute in London run by the visionary Mandry (Charles Dance). Futurist portents of the century ahead are everywhere: fancy gizmos, crazy hats, loose morals.

Eventually, Poliakoff dares to revive the hoariest of old film genres: the medical thriller. Anyone who caught the abominable Nostradamus (1994) will recall the marvellous scene in which the hero interrupted a gruesome medical session, shouting: "Do not bleed this patient! There is a better way to treat him!"

In Century, Paul gets to perform similar heroic gestures in the corridors of the research institute. An even more Gothic twist develops when Mandry's infatuation with the sinister science of eugenics is revealed.

There is the germ of a fascinating historical drama here, but Poliakoff renders it as the same old, Manichean soap opera: progressive rationalism versus reactionary superstition.

To be fair, Poliakoff does attempt to make Mandry a complex character rather than a cardboard villain. He, too, is something of a progressive – opening his institute to women and blacks. By the end, he even becomes a figure of mild pathos. And Dance is certainly a far more imposing screen presence than the blank Owen.

But Century is not a film that lingers long on emotional or historical complexities. As the cast saluted the "brave new world" in the final frame, I suddenly became aware of a telling omission on Poliakoff's part.

In this saga of medical, technological and personal advancement, couldn't the script have spared a single line for Freud and the psychoanalytic revolution?

© Adrian Martin May 1995


Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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