(Neal Slavin, USA, 2001)


There is a deeply embarrassing scene in Focus that appears to synthesise the worst moments in every student film ever made.

Lawrence (William H. Macy) is suffering inner angst while riding a train. His reflection in a dark window elongates into a Munch-like manifestation of horror. This is reject-shop Expressionism.

Lawrence’s problem is that, in 1940s Brooklyn, he is suffering the effects of growing anti-Semitism – even though he is not Jewish. In fact, in his job as a personnel manager in a grey, suburban firm, he even enforces the management’s implicit anti-Semitic policy. But when Lawrence loses his position, he is propelled into a new and confronting consciousness of social inequality.

Focus is adapted from Arthur Miller’s first novel. Even though the book predates his famous relationship with Marilyn Monroe, it is easy to see that screenwriter Kendrew Lascelles has projected some of Monroe’s image and personality into the character of Lawrence’s comely wife, Gertrude (Laura Dern).

However, as always in Miller (The Crucible, 1996), the overlaying of political and sexual themes is murky, and the filmmakers do nothing to iron out the unresolved contradictions generated.

Director Neal Slavin is a well-known photographer, but his grasp of cinematic grammar is less than sure. Focus alternates between awfully overstated imagistic touches, and a bland, unctuous level of social-problem drama that would not be out of place in a telemovie on the Hallmark cable channel.

© Adrian Martin May 2002

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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