Passion Fish

(John Sayles, USA, 1992)


John Sayles has long gained respect as an independent American filmmaker. He began with great vigour in the badlands of genre and exploitation movies, but has found his niche in an altogether more respectable mode with socially conscious films like Matewan (1987) and City of Hope (1991).

Passion Fish displays the same old list of Sayles's good, liberal intentions – sticking up for blacks, for women, for the poor and disabled – but fortunately it is one of his best and most sensitively achieved works.

There is rarely a shortage of heroic, arthouse movies about the struggles of disabled men (The Waterdance [1992], My Left Foot [1989]), but female disability remains a fairly taboo subject. Mary McDonnell, in an outstanding performance, plays May-Alice, a daytime soap star whose life is changed irrevocably by a car accident. Coping rather badly with life in a wheelchair, she drives away many nurses until Chantelle (Alfre Woodard) determines to stay, partly for reasons relating to her own, private problems.

Sayles builds up the complicated relationship between these two women carefully, avoiding bathos and cliché. The New Orleans bayou setting adds a great deal to the film's mood and themes – especially when a shy suitor (David Strathairn) manages finally to get both women cruising with him on the river at night.

Sayles is more a craftsman than a true film artist, but here he has crafted something moving and memorable.

MORE Sayles: Limbo, Sunshine State

© Adrian Martin January 1994

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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