There’s something about certain depictions of the American South of the 1920s and 30s that reminds me of 19th century gothic/romance novels. I don’t know if Brontesque is a word; as in reminding one of Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre, but the air of mystery and gloom that seems to surround old decrepit plantations certainly can give the moors a run for their money.
The South may lack the fogs and crags for people to get lost in or fall down, but it has its own share of dangers. Mysterious swamps filled with ghosts and spirits ready to steal your soul. Not to mention more down to earth dangers like rattlesnakes whose bite can kill you or bogs that could swallow you whole.
Heat and humidity are every bit as oppressive as cold rains and mists, and poor dissipated Southern gentry can have just as many secrets as their brooding English counterparts. Change the mysterious old faithful servants from white to black, and the brick manor house with drafts to a disintegrating pre-civil war plantation house and the transition is complete.
Other Voices, Other Rooms incorporates all those elements down to including an innocent to be the witness to the how far the mighty have fallen. The movie is based on Truman Capote’s work of the same name; his first published novel, and was originally released back in 1995. While re-releasing it now may seem like a cynical attempt to cash in on the newly released feature Capote, it would have been a shame for this work to be lost.
Although it’s almost redundant since most of his work can be classified as such, this first novel of Capote’s was semi-autobiographical. It tells the story of a boy, Joel Sampson (played by David Speck) and the summer he is temporarily reunited with his father.
Ten years before the movie takes place, Joel’s father had mysteriously abandoned him and his mother. As the movie starts, Joel’s mother has just died and he is living with his aunt and uncle. Out of the blue, they receive a letter from Joel’s dad asking that the boy be sent to live with him.
Joel’s father is living on an old plantation that looks like it hasn’t seen any upkeep since before the civil war. When Joel arrives, he is met by an old black man named Jesus Fever (Leonard Watkins), who delivers him from the bus to the Skully plantation in an old beat up horse and cart. The horse and cart are appropriate because we seem to have traveled backwards in time when we arrive at the plantation. No plumbing or electricity are used, and history weighs heavy on the buildings.
Joel is met by the lady of the house, Amy Skully (Anna Levine) who, along with her cousin Randolph (Lothaire Bluteau), are the last remnants of their family living on the estate. Aside from their servant Jesus, they also have a young black woman Zoo (April Turner) working for them as cook and maid.
Joel’s demands to see his father are rebuffed by both Amy and Randolph, with the excuse that he is too sick, and instead Randolph strives to amuse and entertain the young boy. It’s obvious that he has no idea of what to do with a child, or what interests them, but since Randolph is fascinated with Randolph, he figures everybody must be.
When Joel finally does get to see his father, he finds him to be bedridden and unable to move. He wants to know what’s going on and why it was that Randolph wrote the letter pretending to be Joel’s father. Randolph says that neither he nor Amy could bear the thought of their dear friend’s son growing up an orphan.
Randolph seems almost desperate to amuse and befriend Joel. He regales him with stories of fancy dress balls and the time he and Joel’s father spent in Havana. Joel’s father was a boxing promoter and they were touring with one of his prizefighters (Pepe), and Randolph’s girlfriend, Dolores.
But complications arose one night after a fancy dress ball, when Dolores dressed Randolph as Marie Antoinette, and he spent the whole night dancing with Pepe. While Randolph was falling in love with Pepe; Dolores and Pepe were having an affair.
Randolph is charming and irresponsible; melodramatic and flamboyant; and incredibly self-indulgent. But he is able to win Joel over as a friend and companion and gradually brings him into his world. They have fun together painting and reading and gradually Joel comes to accept Randolph as a sort of surrogate father/best friend.
We know there is something rotten at the heart of all this charm. The run down plantation house with its chipped plaster and paint peeled walls is all too indicative of something decaying for the place to be healthy. Overgrown with weeds, the life is being choked out of the grounds, just as the people living there are slowly suffocating.
Lothaire Bluteau’s (best known for his starring role in Jesus of Montreal) depiction of Randolph is magnificent. He is easy to love and despise all in the same breath. He is like a child who has continuously been given his own way, and had every wish indulged when through no fault of his own, he all of sudden finds the carpet pulled out from under him.
Amy is so brittle she looks like she could shatter into a million pieces at any moment. She is resentful of being asked to do the things Randolph has her doing to preserve their secret, and jealous of the time he spends with Joel. In the end she is the one who spills the secret that they’ve been hiding, not because of any remorse, but because she’s tired of not being the centre of attention.
Anna Levine is not given much to work with Amy; it would be easy to play her as one long whine, but she manages to get beneath that surface and show the genuinely lost person under the petulance. When Randolph pays attention to her, she is suffused with happiness, and Ms. Levine is able to give us glimpses of what Amy could have been if she had not been deprived of her potential.
David Speck, as young Joel, is very convincing. His reluctance to befriend Randolph wars with his love of the exotic and make believe. Speck is able to show the conflicts that Joel has with wanting to live this strange life with Randolph and Amy, while at the same time realizing there is something wrong.
The contrast between Joel’s almost adult nature and Randolph’s irresponsibility in the scenes they share, show just how dysfunctional the Skully clan are. When an eleven year old boy is the practical one offering advice to the adults, you know the world is inverted.
This is a well-directed and well-scripted adaptation of a straightforward story by Truman Capote. There’s nothing really fancy; no big stars or special effects. It’s one rarest of things these days; a nice well-acted movie with a good story, and technically pleasing to the eye.
That may not seem like much, but in these days of multibillion-dollar epics and overblown characters, (on and off the screen) it’s nice to be reminded that there are still movies out there content to tell a story. Other Voices, Other Rooms is a pleasure to watch from start to finish for that very reason.