Wednesday 1 September 2010

Closed books: "Certified Copy" (ST 05/09/10)

Certified Copy (12A) 106 mins **

Since his international breakthrough with 1990’s Close-Up – a meticulous recreation of an actual case in which a young man passed himself off as the director Mohsen Makhmalbaf – the Iranian formalist Abbas Kiarostami has explored in scholarly fashion the fine line between fiction and reality, and how we read the moving image. Kiarostami’s first feature outside his homeland, Certified Copy, preserves this thematic continuity even as it gestures – misleadingly, as it happens – in the direction of upscale romance.

Protagonist James Miller (William Shimell) is an English academic in Tuscany to promote a tome investigating the notion of fakery in art, and whether a good copy can be better than the real thing. On his travels, Miller encounters a woman billed simply as “She” (Juliette Binoche), who runs an antiquities shop in the area and clearly shares a professional interest. Yet it’s the pair’s personal interest that proves up for grabs. Have the two met before? Are they merely fan and
author? Or are they, as a waitress believes, an estranged couple seeking some kind of reconciliation?

Certified Copy’s big idea is clear enough: to do a sunkissed art movie aimed at those who wouldn’t dream of lowering themselves to see Letters to Juliet. It’s Before Sunrise on Pro Plus, a return Voyage in Italy, which did something similar with George Sanders and Ingrid Bergman amid the ruins of Pompeii. Except those films were open to new and unexpected stirrings, where Certified Copy is no more than a closed and rather fusty compendium of directorial tics, a game that never really requires an audience. Whatever drama there is here resides solely between the characters and their creator. As Miller instructs his companion at one crucial juncture: “Mum’s the word… They don’t need to know.” Well, pardon us for coming.

Even as an exercise in fostering heightened thespian chemistry, the film falters, due to a mismatch in performance styles. Where Binoche, this year’s Cannes Best Actress winner, ventures a well-rehearsed naturalism, her sudden flip-outs and self-contradictions only adding to the mystery – what, we start to wonder, is this woman playing at? – Shimell, an acclaimed baritone making his screen debut, reacts with the studied deliberation of a red-herring suspect in an episode of Midsomer Murders: it’s hardly his fault, but he’s trying too hard not to give the game away. His stiffness, alas, becomes Certified Copy’s keynote mode of address: where these themes may hold some currency in seminars and conference halls, elsewhere the film is likely to appear almost entirely academic.

Certified Copy is on selected release from Friday.

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