Signs & Wonders Movie Review

Jonathan Nossiter made his fictional writing and directing debut in 1997 with the critically acclaimed Sunday, a story of two lonely strangers who find comfort in each other for a single day.

With Sunday, the camera watches the characters with a sympathetic eye to the influence of their environment. The characters seem shot without the effects of makeup, and the camera gets so close up that one can almost imagine having a conversation with them instead of merely watching a screen. Lies are acceptable because the person receiving them doesn't mind. The two protagonists are happier for having shared that day and this evokes an infectious warmth.

Signs & Wonders (which Nossiter also helped to pen) is more of a technical experiment than a study of human interaction. The camera and music create and disturb the environment at will. There are no warm fuzzies or comforts, either with the characters or their environment. The audience is placed in a voyeuristic role, as the camera rolls outside a scene by shooting through holes in walls and windowpanes, among other devices.

It is an ambitious departure from the simple Sunday. Alec (Stellan Skarsgård, Time Code, Ronin) has been married to Marjorie (Charlotte Rampling, The Wings of a Dove) for seventeen years. They have two children. He has an affair with a co-worker, Katharine (Deborah Unger, The Hurricane, Sunshine) but breaks it off after admitting the sin to his wife. Shortly thereafter he finds he is attuned to strange phenomena, such as a neon light resembling the marks on Katharine's scarf. After meeting Katharine again by accident, he leaves his family for her, and finds he has been manipulated into the relationship. He attempts to win back his family, only to find that they have rsetarted their lives happily enough without him. His efforts at reconciliation erode his dignity and common sense to the extent that he can no longer be a whole person without something external to provide direction.

It is admirable for a director to attempt imposing his style on different genres. As in Sunday, Signs & Wonders takes place in the specifically set universe of its characters. Time elapsed is based on the journey instead of by a clock. Characters are three-dimensional and crisply written so that one can imagine their actual likeness beyond the screen.

Unfortunately, the film concentrates more on spectatorship than audience interaction. The soundtrack gets heavy-handed, attempting to keep a viewer on their toes, and the camera stays too jittery to disallow emotional involvement. In brilliant contrast, dialogue is a tool used only when necessary. However, several impressive plot surprises are slowly folded into the story instead of rushing out for shock value, and are more stimulating as a result.

Though at the mercy of camera angles, the characters are interesting to watch because the acting is remarkable. Skarsgård and Rampling play off each other well, both as stable marriage partners and as ex-lovers. Even their children get to shine with intelligence and understanding. This is not a crumbling family with mundane difficulties that can easily be resolved in a two-hour film. Instead it is a portrait of people who repeatedly try to redefine their constantly changing reality amidst unfounded superstitions and unexplainable circumstance.

Despite its technical focus, Signs & Wonders is a rewarding experience if watched through the end. The camera is active enough to keep adrenaline flowing and character interaction upholds a questioning intrigue throughout. One might wish that Nossiter stuck to a simpler human-based story, but everyone should be allowed at least one chance to test their talents.


Comments

Signs & Wonders Rating

" Good "

Rating: PG, 2000

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