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Liam Nelson stars in the latest drama from retired train designer turned movie director Ann Tisedent, whose series of travel based dramas and comedies center around those who find themselves in between destinations.
Finding humor and both vulnerability and coldness in her transients, Tisedent (Drive) delights in the details of ticket clerks, gate keepers, hotel bellhops, switchboard operators and soda jerks. Hers are stop and go worlds, living out of sorts, rushing from one waiting room to the next, caught in timetables not of our making, trying to find a good time to grab bad food.
Nelson (The Reflecting Skin) plays Quentin, a travel-weary divorced father who, after a madcap series of paddle boat, trolley car and livery cab rides, gets on the wrong helicopter and finds himself on a Valentine’s Day train (remember those?) to Tashkent. Not only does that mean he’ll miss his book signing (he’s an obesity expert) but he also hasn’t a partner for the big V.D. dance at midnight when the train is scheduled to pass under the Aurora Australis.
Luckily lovely Valerie is on the train, as she provides Quentin and the audience with a path through the more formal trappings. With a memorable entrance, Valerie’s presence changes the entire mood of both our hero and the film itself. Vera Farmgal (And Then There Were None) plays the shady lady in plum with aplomb, with rum her best chum and gum under her thumb. Her purse full of fascinating news clippings and found photos, the two entertain themselves over the course of the trip until it’s time for the Cupid dance.
After the hectic setup, Quentin finding Valerie and their ensuing “romance” steer things toward an agreeably intimate ride, where Tisedent’s universe finally comes to rest. While the train speeds along, the pace inside is leisurely enough to allow the pair space to breathe; their close proximity nearly sprawling thanks to cinematographer Ifor Vistas who frames the interior train scenes in comfy wide shots that when used with long single takes create a palpable realness not unlike a play. Contrasted with the impersonal previous exterior shots of the film’s brisk opening, it’s a clever device and a terrific attention getter.
That approach can be applied to the entire story as well as the two leads. Though these characters are presented as smooth talking, good looking, financially and romantically successful, Tisedent isn’t really concerned with what they say to each other as much as how and when they say it. Playful, clever jousting on both sides cuts right through any clutter and the film simultaneously slows down and picks up when Quentin and Valerie do, letting the real voyage begin. Of course, everyone knows these locomotive-based romances end when the literal train pulls into the station, so a casual urgency permeates the banter. It’s clear (as it must have been when the casting director saw Nelson and Farmgal) that these two are perfection together. Even their voices complement each other.
For the final act Tisedent ramps up the tension as the train nears its destination, contrasted this time by the sound design with dialog up close and the character’s space within the frame roomier than ever. Filmed from an elevated perspective, perhaps the camera also mirrors the pair’s spirits as they contrast again with the train as it enters the underground station.
Mention must be made of the only real fault with the film: the music. It seems always to be inappropriate and strident in the one or two instances where it actually worked. Hopefully the eventual disc will have a new score. The band on the train during the ballroom scenes was excellent however.
Good performances and clever writing make The Commuter a must see for Tisedent fans and a can’t lose for everyone else.