Saturday, July 29, 2017

Blu-ray/DVDebut: WAKEFIELD -- Robin Swicord's take on the E. L. Doctorow story

The idea of WAKEFIELD -- both the movie (directed and adapted by Robin Swicord, shown below, from the short story by E.L.Doctorow) and the Doctorow story itself -- is such a strong and original one that I think it would be difficult for any intelligent middle-class reader or viewer not to be drawn in by it. A relatively successful corporate drone on his way home from work one evening encounters first a problem with his commuter train's inability to proceed (in the short story, it is the accidental uncoupling of the train car in which he is seated) and finally arrives in his town only to discover that an electrical blackout has occurred.

Once he reaches his house, instead of proceeding inside to greet his wife and daughters, without anyone noticing, he goes up and into the attic room located atop the garage across from the house. Why? Both film and short story make it clear that Howard Wakefield is an intelligent but unhappy man and not a very good or kind one, either (at least in the more conventional meaning of those words). His marriage is certainly in trouble, so perhaps he needs some time alone to figure it all out. Whatever: Howard decides to take that time, which stretches from mere hours into days, weeks and months alone in his little attic storeroom by day, while scavenging for food and other needs by night.

After viewing this film, which TrustMovies found interesting enough, certainly, but not as compelling as he had hoped it might be, he decided to read the short story (which you can find here). Doctorow's Wakefield takes less than half as long to read as does Ms Swicord's version (at 106 minutes) does to view. And while the character of Howard narrates both, because the movie's POV allows us to see what Howard sees, rather than simply hearing his words, our experience is now much broader and encompassing.

Some viewers might find this more interesting, if expected, but Swicord's version does two things that detract from the original: It takes you, to some rather large extent, out of the mind of Mr. Wakefield, while allowing you to form our own judgment of what he (and now you) see; and it absolutely softens Wakefield's character so that you can imagine that this man's time alone has perhaps helped him to change for the better. The story itself offers none of the latter. For instance, in Doctorow's original our guy refers to the Down Syndrome children next door as "retards." But, oh, my, not in the movie. The whole tone of Wakefield's narration in Doctorow's version is drier and more "entitled."

And while the ending of both story and movie is almost exactly the same, the movie offers, yes, quite a bit more possibility of hope. Perhaps this is simply the difference between Ms Swicord's reading of the original and my own. Certainly the performance of Bryan Cranston in the title role (shown, above, in his middle class mode and, below, in the gone-to-seed version) is exemplary, as this actor most often is.

Jennifer Garner (below and two photos up) also proves credible as the wife, but because what we see of her and all the others here comes from Howard's viewpoint, the movie remains pretty much a one-man show. To her credit, Swicord stays remarkably close to the original regarding the various incidents that pile up along the way. But Doctorow kept us closed into the mind of his man; Swicord lets us wander too much. Still, I'd have to recommend Wakefield, the movie, simply because the idea here is so fascinating, while the execution, if flawed, is at least good enough to carry us along. If you have the time, however, I'd highly recommend reading that original, too.

Released theatrically via IFC Films, the combo DVD and Blu-ray pack arrives on home video from Shout Factory this coming Tuesday, August 1 -- for purchase and/or rental.

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