Saturday 14 May 2011

From the archive: "The Night Listener"

Adapted by Armistead Maupin from his own novel, The Night Listener gives us Robin Williams as a shambling radio DJ, coming out of a turbulent relationship with his last boyfriend when he's introduced to the work of a terminally ill 14-year-old (Rory Culkin), a prodigy on the verge of publishing a memoir of his abused childhood. The DJ and the kid make contact in long, late-night phone calls, but then the former's ex introduces a note of uncertainty by suggesting the voice of the boy and the voice of his mother are uncannily similar. It's an insecure radio personality's worst nightmare - that their listenership should be reduced by even one - that sends the broadcaster out on a lonely, obsessive quest to find out whether the boy ever really existed.

It is, too, a very Eighties-feeling piece (to paraphrase Team America: World Police, almost everybody on screen has, or knows someone who has, AIDS), shot in a palette of muted colours that, along with the presence of Toni Collette as the boy's mother, is bound to generate comparisons to The Sixth Sense. Patrick Stettner's film is every bit as glacial as M. Night Shyamalan's breakout hit, but The Night Listener has a little more going on beneath the surface. The Sixth Sense telescoped: it got smaller and smaller the closer it got to its final-reel coup de cinema, a twist that revealed half of the film you just saw wasn't really there. (Viewers were then encouraged to go back and see for themselves, making it a hugely successful commercial enterprise.)

The Night Listener, which offers no such encouragements (and is thus likely to be far less commercially successful), gets deeper and deeper the further its befuddled hero ventures into the mystery at the film's heart. If The Sixth Sense was an exercise in manipulating audiences, The Night Listener is Maupin and Stettner pondering on the responsibility of the storyteller, which makes the disappointment when they default on their own ending all the greater. Not least as it shortchanges two very decent performances: Collette manages the rare feat of appearing both human and incredibly spooky, while Williams, in a skilful turn, makes not just tolerable but affecting his portrait of a man whose life is in such disarray his only hope is to seek surety in the miseries of others.

(August 2006)

The Night Listener screens on BBC1 tomorrow at 11.35pm.

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