The talking heads version

A play's harrowing monologues become taxing on-screen.

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When it comes to illustrating the inherent difficulty of transforming a play into a film, the failures demonstrate it best. Plays like Wallace Shawn's The Designated Mourner ask the audience to take words and weave them into images, to see not just three characters on a bare stage talking into the void, but a complex and imaginative triptych. Put this same work, essentially unchanged, in front of the unforgiving lens of a movie camera and the magic is gone.

Director David Hare has ignored the essential differences between the two media -- language versus imagery -- and has made not a cinematic interpretation of The Designated Mourner but a filmed play. Hare, whose own plays share many of Shawn's concerns, directed the 1996 British stage production and here regroups the original cast, providing a definitive recording of a masterful work. But the end result has all the appeal of an insect perfectly preserved in amber: It's an interesting artifact, but lifeless.

In The Designated Mourner, Shawn employs three intertwined monologues to chart the death throes of the intelligentsia in an unnamed country, as high art and those who embrace it are systematically undone by brutally efficient political forces.

Howard (David De Keyser) is a grand old man of letters, a philosopher and essayist who views the world as a playground of ideas. His daughter, Judy (Miranda Richardson), is his most devoted acolyte despite her troubled marriage to the lowbrow striver Jack (Mike Nichols), who seeks to be accepted by their haughty intellectual circle.

Shawn unleashes a maelstrom of words as the members of this trio discuss themselves and one another. Through their language a complex portrait emerges. Intellectual rigor and delusions of grandeur, moral rectitude and cowardly complicity, timeless truths and disposable culture are expounded in muted tones.

If these characters could, even for a moment, disengage their analytical filters, they might suffer a bout of hysteria or even fight their (planned) demise. But they can't and inaction becomes their ultimate credo.

The characters, always seated behind a series of tables, primarily stare at the camera as they dispassionately speak. The actors employ a host of tics and mannerisms to reveal their characters' neurotic self-absorption (those of satirist- turned-film director Nichols are particularly unnerving), and while their methods could be highly effective on stage, on film they rapidly become tiresome.

Hare uses shifts in lighting (reflected on an ingenious backdrop made up of golden tiles) to help alter moods, but his camera work is clumsy at best. He regularly employs a three-quarter profile shot that draws the viewer's eyes over a shoulder to see what the character is so intently looking at. Hare also edits as if working with a timer instead of following the rhythm of the piece.

A basic principle behind this type of film is to bring an important theatrical work to a wider audience through a more accessible medium. But it takes a very talented director to bridge this gap and make a play resonate on film.

The late Louis Malle did it wonderfully in two collaborations with Wallace Shawn -- 1981's My Dinner with Andre and 1994's Vanya on 42nd Street -- managing to make the artificiality of the situations (a dinner conversation, the bare-bones production of a Chekhov play) not only engrossing but emotionally rewarding.

The Designated Mourner, on the other hand, suffers a dual fate: Wallace Shawn's play is searing, disturbing and brilliant, but David Hare's film of it is a distinguished failure.

Serena Donadoni writes about film for the Metro Times. E-mail her at letters@metrotimes.com.

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