'Submission': Film Review | LAFF 2017

Courtesy of LA Film Festival
Professor and student misbehave while the audience suffers.

Stanley Tucci plays a professor who gets entangled with a seductive student in an adaptation of Francine Prose's acclaimed novel about sexual politics on campus, 'Blue Angel.'

Stories of teacher-student sex and sexual harassment on college campuses are not new. Francine Prose wrote her acclaimed novel on the subject, Blue Angel, 17 years ago. But with increasing debates about the issue and explosive sexual harassment charges during the 2016 presidential election, the new movie, Submission, adapted from Prose’s novel, seems especially timely. With a strong cast headed by Stanley Tucci, Kyra Sedgwick and young actress Addison Timlin, the film seems likely to find an audience and stir plenty of debate.

Ted Swenson (Tucci) is a professor of creative writing at a small New England college. He’s bored and frustrated by his own lack of progress on a new novel, but he has a strong marriage to campus nurse Sherrie (Sedgwick). He isn’t looking for a sexual liaison when the story begins, but he's intrigued by a gifted young student, Angela (Timlin), especially when she flatters him subtly but shamelessly. Clearly nothing good can come of this flirtation, but we can’t quite predict how badly it will all turn out.

Writer-director Richard Levine, who has many credits in television, made one earlier feature, Every Day (2010), an incisive family drama starring Helen Hunt and Liev Schreiber. This second film is less satisfying on a number of counts. For one thing, it is overly dependent on voiceover narration, especially at the start. This literary device often becomes a crutch for filmmakers, especially when adapting novels. Another problem is the over-reliance on references to the Marlene Dietrich-Emil Jannings film The Blue Angel (1930), the archetypal tale of a pedantic teacher seduced and destroyed by a cabaret performer, which gives Prose's novel its title.

There's a built-in obstacle to this story, and that is a lack of rooting interest, since neither of the two main characters is particularly sympathetic. It’s clear to the audience from the beginning that Angela is a manipulator, but Ted doesn’t exactly seem like an innocent seduced; he gets way too enthralled by Angela’s erotic fiction. The film tries to deepen Ted’s character by repeatedly referring to the trauma of seeing his father self-immolate during the Vietnam War, but this flamboyant psychic scar probably seemed more convincing in the novel.

It helps that these two flawed characters are played by gifted actors. Tucci, sporting a toupee for a change, makes Ted’s conflicts thoroughly convincing, and Timlin skillfully sustains the ambiguity of her character throughout the first part of the movie. But the best performance comes from Sedgwick, who conveys intelligence, sensuality and just the right dose of moral outrage. Her big scene, when she learns of Ted’s adultery and lashes out scathingly, ranks alongside two of the other great scenes of fury expressed by deceived wives: a monologue by Beatrice Straight in Network (which earned her an Oscar) and another by Miranda Richardson in Damage (which landed her an Oscar nomination).

Other good actors in the picture — including Janeane Garofalo, Peter Gallagher and Jessica Hecht — are given too little to do. Hecht in particular plays a potentially intriguing character, a self-righteous professor who’s suspicious of Ted from the outset, but her role is severely underwritten. (Maybe there was more material left on the cutting room floor.) Despite many script problems, Levine has kept the film tightly coiled and engrossing throughout. The idyllic campus setting makes a neat contrast to the seamy human behavior on display.

Production companies: Mighty Engine, Ospringe Media Limited
Cast: Stanley Tucci, Kyra Sedgwick, Addison Timlin, Janeane Garofalo, Peter Gallagher, Ritchie Coster, Jessica Hecht
Director-screenwriter: Richard Levin, based on the novel
Blue Angel by Francine Prose
Producers: Jared Ian Goldman, Wren Arthur
Executive producers: Robert Halmi Jr., Jim Reeve
Director of photography: Hillary Spera
Production designer:  Sara K. White
Costume designer: Mirren Gordon-Crozier
Music: Jeff Russo
Editor: Jennifer Lee
Casting: Avy Kaufman
Venue: Los Angeles Film Festival (Premieres)

106 minutes

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