Poppy Shakespeare

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Venue: Karlovy Vary International Film Festival

KARLOVY VARY, Czech Republic -- "Poppy Shakespeare," which aired in March in on the BBC's Channel Four, will be considered by many as an energetic but ultimately shallow updating of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." Its strongest features are a bitingly ironic script, snappy direction and exceptionally fine acting by BAFTA award-winner Anna Maxwell Martin ("Becoming Jane" and "Bleak House") and Naomie Harris ("Pirates of the Caribbean").

Its script, based on the best-selling, partly autobiographical novel by Clare Allan, is taut and moves along at a perky clip. Yet owing perhaps to its concentration on the two central figures, surrounded by a standard-issue chorus of mental patients, it's also hampered by an excessive theatricality that gives the impression it's been adapted from a play rather than a novel.

Film's too-talky script is jam-packed with one-line zingers from beginning to end, yet are so authentically lower-class and so frenetically delivered as to make them all but impossible for most Americans to understand. Consequently, a North American release is unlikely. Even a PBS purchase seems a long-shot, leaving ancillary sales, especially on DVD, its most likely possibility for an extended life.

Most of the action takes place, claustrophobically, in a London psychiatric ward. The usual cast of colorfully disparate madmen provide a background for the central story of N. (Martin), who's been faking mental illness for 13 years so she doesn't have to face the real world, and Poppy Shakespeare (Harris), who first enters the ward loudly and aggressively proclaiming her normality. In the course of the film and through the many ups and downs of N. and Poppy's relationship, such relative terms as "normal" and "mad" come in for a thorough rethinking.

Nor is Britain's mental health system left unspared. Much is made of the usual logic-defying institutional rules that, for example, require someone to become part of the mental health system (in other words, declare herself mentally deranged) in order to have the proper institutional standing to dispute that assessment. The staff spouts the usual cliches about "taking life by the horns" in a super-silly moment when N. is released, against her will, from the ward.

The growing, sometimes rocky friendship between the central characters -- so convincingly played by Martin and Harris -- is perhaps the most satisfyingly rendered aspect of the film. Poppy explains what olives are to the working-class N., who in turn teaches Poppy how to game the system. Too bad most of the film's best lines will be lost on their American cousins.


Production Companies: Cowboy Films
Cast: Anna Maxwell Martin, Naomie Harris. Director: Benjamin Ross. Screenwriter: Sarah Williams, based on the novel by Clare Allan. Producers: Charles Sweet, Alistair Flind. Director of photography: Danny Cohen. Production designer: Nina Kobiashvili. Editor: David Charap. Sales: Cowboy Films
No rating, 89 minutes.

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