Reviews — May 31
Being a “Mad Men” fan, I’ll confess that I initially picked up “Return” because of the presence of John Slattery, who plays the charming jerk Roger Sterling on the hit AMC series. However, he doesn’t appear until the film’s final half hour. No matter, because the film has other things going for it.
Primarily, Linda Cardellini, one of the actors whose career was launched by the short-lived TV series “Freaks and Geeks.” She plays an Iraq war vet who returns to her working class Ohio family and doesn’t really fit in any longer. Michael Shannon, who is about to achieve superstar status as villain General Zod in the new “Superman” film, plays her husband. It’s a quiet little film, well-written, with a few surprises along the way.
Cardellini is really good at internalizing a lot that is only hinted at.
How good? It was not until I looked up her biography for this review that I realized she’s had a prominent role on “Mad Men” all season as Don Draper’s mistress. It wasn’t just the ‘60s-era wig that threw me. She’s clearly a very talented actor.
“Return” (2011) Written and directed by Liza Johnson. Starring Linda Cardellini, Michael Shannon and John Slattery. Rated R for language, sexuality. 97 minutes.
Fire breaks out in the hotel dining room, sending diners tumbling out into the snow, destroying the building and killing several guests in their beds. But the town tragedy turns into good fortune for Nicholas Van Tassel, who spots among the shivering crowd an arresting vision: a tall, beautiful stranger with whom he is immediately smitten.
It seems like good fortune, at least. Van Tassel, the narrator of Anita Shreve’s 2003 novel, “All He Ever Wanted,” is not quite as convinced of that three decades later as he records his memoirs during a three-day train trip.
In most novels, the narrator is likeable — after all, he controls what we know about the people and the circumstances of the story, and (like all of us) tends to paint himself and his deeds in the best light. Van Tassel, though, is hard to like. The truths he reveals are not flattering, even when he thinks they are, and he comes across as pedantic, aloof and controlling.
To his credit, the latter quality is due, in part, to the times: The story begins in 1899, when the roles of men and women — not to mention husbands and wives — were much more narrowly defined than they are today. His controlling nature would have been more acceptable in his day.
Back to the beautiful stranger: Etna Bliss is visiting her uncle, Van Tassel’s colleague on the faculty of a small New England college. The narrator pursues her single-mindedly, attributing her lukewarm reception to shyness, rather than disinterest.
When he pops the question, she leaves town; undaunted, he tracks her down and convinces her that he truly loves her. She accepts his ring and vows to be a good wife and mother, but tells him honestly that he’ll never own her heart.
Skip ahead to 1933. As his memoir unfolds, Van Tassel drops many hints that something awful happens between their engagement and his solo train trip.
Shreve, who is, of course, pulling all the puppet strings, does a good job of building suspense — what became of Etna in the interim? Why has the professor become estranged from family members? What went horribly wrong?
It’s not an easy book to read, but after a few pages you’re on the train with Van Tassel, committed to riding to some unknown, but inevitable destination.
“All He Ever Wanted,” by Anita Shreve, Little, Brown and Company, 2003.