Writer-director Richard Kwietniowski's Love and Death on Long Island is a comic variation on Thomas Mann's Death in Venice, the famous novella about an aging writer who rather inexplicably, and fatally, becomes obsessed with an attractive young boy.
As with the Mann story, the homoerotic aspect of the film, adapted from a novel by Gilbert Adair, is so muted as to be barely discernible. It's not young male flesh that seduces the hitherto cloistered aesthete but instead, as he himself puts it, "the discovery of beauty where no one ever thought to look for it."
The discoverer is one Giles De'Ath (John Hurt), a widowed English writer of such firm Luddite convictions that he can't distinguish between a VCR and a microwave oven and, when moved to purchase the former, doesn't realize one needs a TV to properly run it. One day, curiosity overcoming his estrangement from the modern world, he ventures to a local cinema to see what indignities have been wrought on E.M. Forster, only to wander into the wrong multiplex shoe box and be confronted by Hotpants College II. It's there that he becomes infatuated with one of the minor players, Ronnie Bostock (Jason Priestley). De'Ath, who hasn't been desensitized by generations of post-James Dean poseurs, sees in Bostock's wounded-innocence gaze an echo of classic depictions of early mortality. Soon he's off to Long Island, to deceptively wheedle his way into the actor's life.
De'Ath, as written, is less a believable character than a familiar stereotype, the intellectual so consumed by his impractical passions that he can barely tie his shoelaces. But Hurt fleshes out this stick figure with his customary brilliance, making the sad fellow seem both devious and sympathetic, and, ultimately, rather admirable. Priestley, as he was in Coldblooded (1995), has been expertly cast in a role that benefits from his actorly limitations. And Fiona Loewi, as Bostock's girlfriend, brings a fine intelligence to her part as someone who is just one step ahead of the wily De'Ath.
The film is only fitfully amusing but kindly toward its hapless hero -- and well worth seeing, if only to watch the estimable Hurt as he imbues his potentially pitiable De'Ath with dignity.
Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for the Metro Times. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.