Love and Death on Long Island

(Richard Kwietniowski, UK, 1997)


Richard Kwietniowski's Love and Death on Long Island makes a curious double with the contemporary version of Lolita (1997). In both, an introspective, melancholic litterateur already anticipating his twilight years becomes inexplicably infatuated with a much younger person. And in both the relationship expresses a clash of cultural styles – high, European refinement versus gaudy, American manners.

There is nothing, however, even faintly controversial about Love and Death on Long Island, even though the two main characters are men – bringing in another major reference, Luchino Visconti's film of Thomas Mann's Death in Venice (1971). The story's register is mainly comic, springing as it does from the obsession of Giles De'Ath (John Hurt) with a pretty boy, Ronnie (Jason Priestly), whom he inadvertently finds in an awful American teen movie called Hotpants College.

Giles is so moved by this fantastic screen apparition that soon he has swapped his cloistered library for the kitschy green of Long Island. Uncovering hitherto suppressed powers of malevolent manipulation, he worms a way into Ronnie's life via his sweet, trusting girlfriend, Audrey (Fiona Loewi). Once inside home and hearth, Giles tempts Ronnie by comparing him to Olivier and offering to script for him a "message picture".

Kwietniowski captures and extends the delicate weave of literary conceits at the heart of Gilbert Adair's novel. He is less successful with the films-within-the-film: the Hotpants College series looks like a Z grade Porky's spin-off made for video release in 1981, not a lively pop movie which Giles would see in a London cinema in the late '90s.

Love and Death on Long Island is let down by a fairly drab, inert visual style, and a squeamishness over dramatising certain key points – such as the fact that this escapade represents, after all, Giles' coming-out at a relatively advanced age. But all the performances are sharp, and Adair's essentially brittle, cynical tale has been transformed into something disarmingly sweet and sincere.

MORE Kwietniowski (and Hurt): Owning Mahowny

© Adrian Martin April 1999

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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