Raised in tenement housing in late-19th century London and forced to live the suppressed life of a sweatshop laborer in a Jewish slum, Esther Kahn (Summer Phoenix) uses the theater as an escape from the harsh realities of everyday life. As a child, her brother and sisters find her awkward because of her abnormal silence and infatuation with the low-budget Yiddish performances put on by the local neighborhood troupes. As the family outcast, she internalizes all the loathing she receives from her mother (Frances Barber) and family, which leads to a desperate search for her place in the world.
Esther's stubbornness and conviction eventually lead her to the stage where she seems to have a knack for totally immersing herself into each character. But she seems to be missing a few key ingredients preventing her from landing that coveted leading role. Auspiciously, she encounters the prodigious yet tainted Nathan (Ian Holm), an aging outcast of an actor whom she reluctantly accepts as her mentor. Nathan, however, can only teach her so much about the nuances of stage performance: Esther needs to experience for herself life's turbulent emotions in order to effectively render them on stage. Thus, her ascetic upbringing as a silent outcast must be overcome.
She then immerses herself into a dark and surprisingly cinematic London in search of self-expression. At this point the film is at its best as Esther faces a triage of challenges: from her quest for love, to her growth from Nathan's tutelage, and ultimately the pursuit of self-fulfillment; she shows extraordinary determination.
Phoenix ably conveys the complexity of Esther's character. In one shockingly intense scene she wildly pummels her face because she is unable to cope with heartbreak and the pressure of performing. However, the nature of Esther's societal ailments are often ambiguous -- leading one to question whether or not she has genuine mental problems or whether her unique talents are the result of pure genius unable to conform. In comparison, Holm flawlessly pulls off his role as mentor, proving invaluable to the development of Esther's character along with strengthening Summer Phoenix's performance.
To its detriment, the film's blaring score is reminiscent of '70s classroom fodder a la The Red Balloon and often clashes with the somber tone. Plus, at two hours and 25 minutes, Esther's hardships begin to feel like a grueling marathon stuck on those last few miles with no end in sight.
On the other hand, if you are an actor who can relate to the search for inner peace by dramatically depicting the lives of others onstage, then Esther's story is a compelling quest for truth. It teaches a valuable lesson of persistence and how difficult answering to that beast from within can be.
And Esther danced the night away.
Run time: 142 mins
In Theaters: Wednesday 4th October 2000
Distributed by: Le Studio Canal Plus
Contactmusic.com: 2.5 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 50%
Fresh: 12 Rotten: 12
IMDB: 6.7 / 10
Director: Arnaud Desplechin