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Salt Lake City Weekly Portrait of Longing

"Love and Death on Long Island" illustrates how anyone can succumb to all-consuming obsession.

By Mary Dickson

MARCH 30, 1998:  With shades of Thomas Mann's Death in Venice, British newcomer Richard Kwietniowski tackles the ever-plumbable depths of obsession, longing and desire in his skillfully understated feature, Love and Death On Long Island. The main character is even named Giles De'Ath.

Giles (John Hurt) is an aging widower and distinguished British writer in natty tweeds who becomes hopelessly obsessed with a flawless young American actor when he accidentally wanders into the wrong movie theater and sees him on screen in Hot Pants College II. Giles is instantly smitten by teen heartthrob Ronnie Bostock (Jason Priestly). He sees all his movies, watches his TV series, cuts photos of him out of magazines and carefully pastes them in a secret journal.

Giles sits in his study, smoking with elan as he punches the still and slow-motion buttons to revel in his "discovery of beauty where no one ever thought of looking for it." His chosen subject of study becomes the life and works of Ronnie Bostock. He even takes up smoking Chesterton cigarettes because that's the name of Ronnie's town on Long Island. His grand obsession leads him to Chesterton, where his canny resourcefulness enables him to befriend Ronnie and his live-in girlfriend, Audrey (Fiona Loewi).

Hurt is magnificent in his metamorphosis from repressed, uptight Englishman ordering his obviously besotted housekeeper about to a smitten man who dares to chase his unattainable dream. In the very act of pursuing his earnest quest, he achieves a small measure of triumph. Hurt conveys Giles' tormented longing with carefully nuanced restraint, adding just the right dash of humor when appropriate. His emotional state unfolds in minor details, like his obvious embarrassment at buying trashy teen magazines with stories headlined "Do, Ron, Ron" from the corner market; his ineptitude at renting videos with titles like Tex Mex and Skidmarks; his plea for privacy when he asks his housekeeper not to clean his study in the afternoons so that he may peruse his magazines and videos; or his humiliation when she catches him with the scissors he intends to use to cut out magazine photos of his idol.

His is an impossible, many would say inappropriate or foolish, desire. Even Giles realizes this, looking in the mirror and woefully sighing, "Dear God, this is ridiculous."

Love and Death on Long Island
Directed by
Richard Kwietniowski
Starring
John Hurt
Jason Priestly
Ronnie is a young man at least 30 years his junior whom he's never even met, and who comes from a totally different world that his own peers openly scorn. Giles' references to great young artists such as the French poet Rimbaud, who have had as their mentors older men, are met from Ronnie with, "Rambo?"

Giles is an anachronism, a man adrift in the modern world. He's befuddled by cordless phones, answering machines, faxes, talking cars and mirrored ceilings. He doesn't even own a television, and in one amusing scene when he finally buys a VCR to watch Ronnie's movies, he doesn't realize that he needs a television set to view those films.

Ronnie, on the other hand, is completely a product of the modern age. Yet for some inexplicable reason not understood even by himself, Giles falls "desperately and completely" in love with the young star. Here is the most cerebral of men, a man who was married most of his adult life and now finds himself hopelessly smitten by a young boy and traveling to the ends of the world to meet him. It's an infatuation over which he is powerless and which drives him to behave in ways a man of his station never would have considered.

That's the very point of Love and Death On Long Island. It illustrates just how completely anyone can succumb to an all-consuming obsession. We've all had someone whose pictures we've kept, whether we cut them out of magazines or snapped the photos ourselves. We've all had someone about whom we've wanted to know absolutely every detail, just as Giles searches out bits of trivia about Ronnie from the name of his dog to his favorite brand of athletic shoes. Anyone can be gripped by an obsession in which longing becomes its own raison d'etre.

It's a bittersweet story that's been told countless times, but Kwietniowski tells it with aplomb. John Hurts' Giles invites comparison to Albert Finney's bus driver (rendered gaga over male passenger Rufus Sewell) in A Man of No Importance. To Giles, Ronnie symbolizes the male ideal of beauty and perfection. He's like Wallace's painting of the young writer Chatterton in London's Tate Gallery, which Giles stares at longingly so he can replicate it on paper, attaching Ronnie's face.

As the object of Giles' affection, Jason Priestly rises above the confines of his Beverly Hills 90210 role. Ronnie, like Priestly himself, is a beautiful teen idol cast in unrelentingly puerile films and tired of playing "dumb kids." The actor finds Giles' praise of his untapped potential ("You have the look of a young Olivier") irresistible. Here's a well-heeled Brit who takes him seriously, fills him with hope, convinces him he's at a turning point in his career, and goes so far as to hint at writing a screenplay for him. Ronnie is as desperate to believe Giles as Giles is to devote himself to the actor.

Giles De'ath easily could have been a pathetic character, but Hurt imbues the part with dignity and enough painful self-awareness and subdued humor to create a marvelously understated, though at times too restrained, portrait of longing.

Is a man who surrenders himself to the most irrational of human desires—to fall in love—to be pitied or admired? "Nothing is more solitary than an artist's life," Giles confesses at one point. "One yearns for solace without knowing quite where to look for it." Giles De'Ath, at least musters the courage to "sail south to seek and find."


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