The Flaw is a Chore

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Review of 'The Door in the Floor', director Tod Williams

How do people overcome events that shatter their lives? How do relationships survive and change in the process? What are the limits of emotional recovery? These are some of the questions posed by The Door in the Floor, an adaptation of the first 60 pages of John Irving's novel A Widow for One Year.

Jeff Bridges plays Ted Cole, a writer of children's books, and Kim Basinger plays his wife, Marion. They live in an East Hampton beach community with their young daughter, Ruth (Elle Fanning), around whom they have attempted to rebuild their lives after the death of their two teenage boys. He muddles through with drink, infidelity and only a limited interest in his work, while she is paralysed, unable to care for their daughter without being painfully reminded of the loss of their sons.

Ruth, who becomes the main character in the rest of Irving's book, inhabits a world of images and stories about her brothers, both of whom died before she was born. Her obsessive knowledge of events in the boys' lives, depicted in the many photographs of them throughout the house, movingly convey the extent to which she has grown up in an atmosphere defined by their absence.

This dysfunctional scenario is disrupted by the arrival of Eddie O'Hare (Jon Foster), a young student Ted has hired as a writing assistant for the summer. Eddie is similar in age and appearance to the Cole's sons at the time of their deaths. Ted has calculated that Eddie will help bring Marion out of herself. To the extent that he does this, Eddie provides the necessary catalyst for change in the Coles' marriage.

Bridges is superb as the unshaven, often naked, mostly drunk, larger than life Ted. (Knowing that he made his own decisions about wardrobe explains a lot.) Basinger's limitations as an actress are fairly well hidden in a part that requires her to be numb with grief throughout most of the film. Even her sex scenes with Eddie are convincing - her detachment comes across as her escaping herself in order to get closer to her sons. Foster plays Eddie capably, while six year old Fanning's performance strengthens the film, rather than detracts from it, something only a few very young actors can do.

The whole atmosphere of this film is 'Calvin Klein in the Hamptons' with a tragic subtext. The greys, blues and beiges of East Coast sand and sea are beautifully depicted. The interiors are cosy and kindly lit. There are plenty of woollen blankets and fluffy white towels. Nobody locks their doors at night, and the softness of the air is palpable. There are no rough edges to this setting. All of the conflict comes from within.

But after two hours of the story described above, one is left wondering why Irving's novels can't just be left as books and the money spent instead on original screenplays. The film lacks much of the humour found in his writing and isn't able to convey the depth of character. There are unnecessary lines of dialogue where the screenwriter has not sufficiently trusted the audience. And towards the end of the film this lack of confidence culminates in a totally gratuitous flashback scene. The film lacks a strong sense of direction and tries to make up for it with an ending that is far too neat.

Overall there are worse ways to spend a couple of hours, but reading a John Irving novel isn't one of them. The Fourth Hand, which was written after A Widow for One Year, is one of his best books yet. Don't wait for the film.