By Hemanth Kissoon
“I don’t want to talk about the past. You and I remember it differently,” Henry Barthes.
Director Tony Kaye returns with his first UK theatrical release since AMERICAN HISTORY X exploded onto our screens in 1998. To call that film intense is an understatement. Kaye turns his fevered gaze towards the inner city school system. In an unnamed location, which could be anywhere in the US, substitute teacher Henry Barthes (the always laconically brilliant Adrien Brody) takes over a class in a school dropping below the district’s targets. Forget DEAD POETS SOCIETY, this is closer to Laurent Cantet’s Palme D’Or winner, THE CLASS. The filmmakers however eschew realism, and opt for heightened melodrama. There is no real let up. The threat to sanity, of violence, sacking, disgrace is palpable with little respite. DETACHMENT feels like a war film, where the protagonists are assailed on multiple fronts.
Supporting Brody is a starry cast. On the one hand, is this the coolest school staff in the world? James Caan, Lucy Liu, Christina Hendricks, Marcia Gay Harden, Tim Blake Nelson, Blythe Danner and William effing Petersen!! Oh yeah, and just throw in Bryan Cranston as the principal’s hubbie. On the other hand, this has got to be one of the biggest anti-recruitment teaching films. Henry deservedly earns respect and affection from his pupils, though knowing he will move on when a permanent teacher arrives. He is still the antidote to the misanthropy and ambivalence. Everyone else seems to be on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Actually Henry seems to be too, but for different reasons. There are flashbacks to a traumatic past, which are portrayed too stylistically and not satisfactorily fleshed out, in contrast to all the can’t-avert-your-eyes claustrophobic close-ups and grimy cinematography.
DETACHMENT is not without other flaws. It does not appear to have the courage to avoid a climax that is unnecessarily over-sensational. The theme of suicide – physical and career – is interesting, but not explored deeply enough. There is also an under-age prostitute sub-plot, the movie’s grabbing at redemption, and feels glib. Having said all that, everything within the school is riveting. If DETACHMENT had stayed there, it would’ve been a real contender for awards. Proceedings commence with, it seems, real teachers being interviewed in a similar vein to Warren Beatty’s magnificent REDS; and then that idea disappears. Imagine if the motif had been continued throughout, we might have had an epic take on the pressures of teaching and parental responsibility.