Empty9:30-11 p.m., Wednesday, June 13
The problem with "The Fever" isn't its production values or its performances or even the idealism that it wears on its sleeve. All of those are beyond reproach. What proves to be its undoing is the heavy-handed fashion in which the upper-middle-class white guilt story line plays out.
There is nary an ounce of subtlety in the screenplay from Wallace Shawn ("My Dinner With Andre") and Carlo Nero, which Shawn adapted from his own stage play. It's all about the illumination that comes over one older woman after she takes a step back to examine her privileged life through the prism of a poor, war-stricken country, but the HBO telefilm -- shot entirely on location in Zagreb, Croatia -- sounds the same strident note repeatedly while at the same time neglecting the eloquence of restraint.
Because Vanessa Redgrave is the film's sole star, the project's politicization is hardly a shock. She's a dynamic and courageous actress, an Oscar winner and an artist of impeccable talent. But Redgrave also has a history of injecting her belief system into her work, or at least the tendency to accept those that jibe with her social mindset. "Fever" is no exception.
While its class-conscious heart obviously is in the right place, it makes its points with such obsessive self-awareness and altruism that it tends to trump eloquent points about the widening gap between haves and have-nots.
At the core of the movie's world view are its generic underpinnings. It's set in an unknown nation so as to apparently remove preconceived notions from the equation, and its characters (including Redgrave) mostly have no formal names. Redgrave is Woman. There also is Piano player, Thin young man and Bitter man. Star cameos abound, also in plain wrap characters: Joely Richardson is Woman at 30, Michael Moore (yes, that Michael Moore) is War correspondent and Angelina Jolie portrays the Young woman in the church. The conceit is that it doesn't matter who these people are or where they are; it and they are simple metaphors for grinding injustice.
"Fever" is set in motion by the feverish semi-delirium of a well-off English woman (Redgrave), who is briefly consumed by a mysterious illness while traveling in a dirt-poor nation ravaged by war, atrocity and the stranglehold of a rich ruling class. Her fever sends her imagination into overdrive and a "psychological voyage of self-discovery" (as an HBO news release puts it). Narrating her own tale, she reflects on the happiness and comfort of her nice little life in the West while at the same time awakening to the poverty, misery and brutality that is the lot of so many who don't happen to be born into such fortunate circumstances. She gets bummed out that she suddenly sees herself as more shallow and less worldly wise than she had ever imagined.
Yet while the film likes to think it is making profound points about inequality and unfairness, the scribes fail to connect the dots in a way that would bring "Fever" anything approaching true insight. Director Nero and director of photography Mark Moriarty bring a grayish, washed-out look to the production that effectively matches its downbeat outlook, and the players -- Redgrave in particular -- supply artistic heft. But this still is mostly a piece about the residual guilt suffered by the blessed rather than the towering chronicle of class-consciousness that it so aspires to be.
Shawn Fever, Blumhouse Prods. and HBO Films
Executive producers: Vanessa Redgrave, Jason Blum
Co-executive producer: Carlo Nero
Co-producer: Andrew Warren
Associate producer: Igor Aleksander Nola
Teleplay: Wallace Shawn, Carlo Nero
Director: Carlo Nero
Based on the play by: Wallace Shawn
Director of photography: Mark Moriarty
Production designer: Ivica Trpcic
Costume designer: Vjera Ivankovic
Editor: Mel Quigley
Music: Claudio Capponi
Casting: Siobhan Bracke
Woman: Vanessa Redgrave
War correspondent: Michael Moore
Young woman in the church: Angelina Jolie
Diplomat: Rade Sherbedgia
Ranevskaya: Geraldine James
Violinist: Maxim Vengerov
Piano player: Vag Papian
Woman at 30: Joely Richardson
Jeffrey: Simon Williams
Woman's husband 30 years ago: Marinko Prga
Children: Lea Spisic, Raphael Sparanero, Tonka Simurina
Ballet dancers: Georg Stanciu, Jelena Knezovic