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On Movies: Penn and Scott Thomas transform film

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 26, 2008 - Most movie critics and film scholars believe, with considerable justification, that film is a director's medium. Even in Hollywood, even with potential blockbusters where the money men (and, occasionally, money women) talk the loudest, the director is almost always the person who makes or approves most of the many thousands of separate decisions that go into the creation of a feature film.

But film can also be an actor's medium, and sometimes an electrifying and unique performance can raise a film out of the ordinary and make it unforgettable. Two movies opening in St. Louis this week - "Milk" and "I've Loved You So Long" - fall into that category.


"Milk," Gus Van Sant's somewhat formulaic telling of the inspiring and tragic story of gay San Francisco supervisor Harvey Milk, would be a pretty good bioflick with an annoyingly sentimental soundtrack were it not for the extraordinary performance by Sean Penn at the center of it.

"Milk" is one of those movies you have to see. That's because Penn does such a remarkable job of playing the title character, a brash Castro Street storekeeper who organized the burgeoning and beleaguered gay population of San Francisco in the 1970s, fought his way onto the city's board of supervisors by forging alliances with unions and small business people, enjoyed a brief period of victory and power, and then was murdered, along with his ally, the mayor of the city.

Penn somehow manages simultaneously to soften and sharpen himself to sink into Harvey Milk. He doesn't so much become more feminine as redefine masculinity, permitting it a kind of nurturing vulnerability that should never be mistaken for weakness. From time to time, Penn will show Milk flashing in anger, abandoning the non-threatening, accommodating, even diffident attitude that was his style when he was seeking allies. Without warning, his purr will turn into a snarl, and he will lay down a hard line that you could imagine coming straight out of nasty ward politics in a city like Chicago or New York, where Milk grew up.

This is nowhere more apparent than in the final meeting between Milk and Mayor George Moscone, when Milk smashes apart a sunny interlude of mutual self-congratulation by suddenly warning Moscone that he will destroy him politically if he doesn't do things the way Milk and his constituency want them done. Knowing that both these men are soon to die at the hands of the same killer, thinking of them as allies in life and, in a sense, in death, we are stunned by the change that washes over Milk like a wave.

It is a change Penn reflects memorably in a smile that never stops smiling but whose meaning drastically changes in a instant with a slight narrowing of his eyes.

Penn's performance is a triumph. On the basis of this film, at least, Sean Penn is one of the great American actors of his generation.

I've Loved You So Long 

"I've Loved You So Long" has a problem. It comes near the end of the French film, and it involves a key plot revelation that is both anti-climactic and somewhat illogical. But by the time we get to the revelation, we have become so enraptured by the performance of Kristin Scott Thomas as a killer trying to resume her life after 15 years in prison that we will forgive the film almost anything.

On the whole, filmmaker Phillipe Claudel, a novelist, does a very professional job of directing his first feature. The pacing is deliberate, but it deserves to be, and the muted look of most of the film is appropriate to the theme. But the reason to see the film is Kristin Scott Thomas, who appears to be as skillful an actor in French as she is in English. (Perhaps I should say, as she was in "The English Patient.")

For much of the film, her character - named Juliette - moves slowly through life in near silence, almost without affect, haunted by her crime and its punishment. As well she might be. The person she killed was her son.

After prison, she moves in with her younger sister, the sister's husband and their two adopted children, young girls from Vietnam. For many reasons, some obvious, some revealed, the reunion between sisters is difficult, painful for both of them. Without overtly expressed emotions, hiding her face behind the cigarettes she chain smokes and wrapped in layers of clothing, Scott Thomas conveys a great deal of the inner life of this woman oppressed by guilt and resentment. Slowly, helped by a relationship with the children that begins in anger but grows into friendship, further helped by meeting an interesting man with experience in prison, Juliette partly emerges from her shell, although clearly she will never put her soul-deep sadness behind her.

The quiet power of Scott Thomas' performance is epitomized by a scene fairly early in the film. Lonely, Juliette goes to a cafe and has a drink. She notices a sleazily handsome man at the bar who is clearly on the make. Its been a long time since she has made love to a man, and she cannot stop her eyes from drifting toward him. He comes over and tries to pick her up. She resists at first, and then, finally, decides to go with him to a hotel. As she makes that decision, the look on her face combines emotions - lust, loneliness, self-loathing, surrender - in a stunning moment that only a great actress could have provided.

Haper Barnes is a free-lance writer whose movie reviews appear regularly in the Beacon.

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