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"Hollow Reed" Explores Child Abuse And Parental Responsibility

By Stacey Richter

July 21, 1997:  ANY MOVIE DEALING with child abuse is bound to be difficult at times, but Hollow Reed, a British film about a divorced couple and their young son, manages to combine the excitement of a thriller and serious social issues without being overbearing.

The film opens with a shot of a boy running through the residential streets of Bath. There's a feeling that this isn't just a playful kid taking a jog; there's something frantic about him, as if he's being pursued. He arrives at the house that his father Martyn (Martin Donovan) shares with his lover Tom (Ian Hart). The father is concerned to find that his son has a gash over his eye, and unconvinced by the boy's vague explanation of how he got it. When the boy's parents meet later at the hospital, it becomes apparent that there's a lot of tension between the two. Hannah, the mother (Joely Richardson), seems disturbed by the presence of her ex-husband's lover, though Hannah arrives at the hospital on the arm of her boyfriend, an enigmatic, working-class fellow ominously named Frank (Jason Flemyng).

The first half of the movie deals with the inevitable revelation of the source of the boy's injuries. Oliver (Sam Bould), a quiet, saucer-eyed little boy, forms the center of an ever-widening circle of cruelty and deceit. Bould is a wonderful young actor; he emanates a forlorn, frightened quality while hardly speaking a word. There's nothing cloying about this depiction of childhood--no Disney-style cuteness. By simply being a regular kid, Oliver seems to deserve all the love and protection he can get. He doesn't ask for help, he just looks quietly pitiful.

Not surprisingly, the working-class boyfriend Frank turns out to be the culprit. (There aren't any other candidates.) When mother leaves the house, he forces little Oliver to recite, "I will control the excesses of my nature and behave," while scrubbing the kitchen chopping block. This is perhaps the most stereotyped aspect of this otherwise even, fair-minded movie. Frank's sadism is by-the-numbers, and the question of why he's driven to torture his little friend is glossed over: His own father did it to him, we are told. Plus, he's a construction worker.

Far more subtle and sympathetically rendered is the behavior of Oliver's mother Hannah, who fails to protect her son adequately when given the chance. Paula Milne's fine script makes Hannah's motives (and conflicts) apparent, without beating us over the head with them. Nicely rendered as well is Martyn's reaction to his suspicion that his son is being beaten: He applies for custody; then, believing a court wouldn't grant an openly gay man custody, he asks his long-time boyfriend to move out.

Martin Donovan (best known for his endless roles in Hal Hartley movies) does what he's best at here: a slow, controlled, emotional burn. He clearly loves his boyfriend (there's some rare, hot guy-on-guy footage in Hollow Reed), but his drive to protect his son supercedes everything else in his life. Donovan is an excellent brooder; even when he's just staring into space (as he often does in this movie), it's clear that he's troubled. It's this tenacity that eventually makes Martyn the dubious hero of the story.

Director Angela Pope has made her way to features from British TV, and at times in Hollow Reed the conventions of television show through. Rather than being of-a-piece, Hollow Reed is divided into three half-hour little sections, each with it's own shocking revelation and climax. As a result, the whole lacks tension and momentum--at several points in the story, it seems like the movie could have just ended. And at times the film gets bogged down with social issues in an annoying, issue-of-the-week sort of way. Though certain vital and fascinating themes arise naturally in the story--the difficulty of divorce for children, for example--others, like the enthusiams of the courts for depicting gay relationships as perverted, seem forced and tacked on.

Hollow Reed is certainly no masterpiece, but it is noteworthy for dealing with difficult subjects in an intelligent and interesting way.

Hollow Reed is playing at the Loft Cinema (795-7777).

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