Hollow Reed
Director: Angela Pope. Cast: Martin Donovan, Joely Richardson, Sam Bould, Jason Flemyng, Ian Hart, Edward Hardwicke. Screenplay: Paula Milne.

Like another recent child custody-themed picture, 1995's Losing Isaiah, Angela Pope's Hollow Reed presents a thorny circumstance of two sets of would-be parents, warring to lay claim on a child to whom each new family presents certain advantages and equally certain problems. In the earlier movie, race, money, and natural motherhood vs. adoption were the variables around which a court battle was staged; in the newer film, child abuse and homosexuality are the topics up for examination. The comparisons to Losing Isaiah do not end here, because both films share a similar arc of admirable discipline and probity in laying out the situation but ultimately leading to a ham-fisted and reductive means of resolving the conflict so carefully mounted.

Martin Donovan (The Portrait of a Lady, The Opposite of Sex) and Joely Richardson (Sister, My Sister) star as Martyn and Hannah Wyatt, the divorced natural parents of nine-year-old Oliver (Sam Bould). Martyn and Hannah divorced soon after he admitted to her his homosexuality, vague notions of which he had hoped to silence by fathering the child that he, like his wife, had always wanted. Since the divorce, Oliver has lived with Hannah and her new lover, Frank (Jason Flemyng), while Martyn and his partner Tom (Ian Hart, John Lennon in 1995's BackBeat), get occasional visiting privileges. Hannah makes no pretensions that her husband's sexual orientation does not strike her as a threatening influence on Oliver, and she is determined that her new relationship with Frank raise a healthy and "normal" young boy.

The central scenario of Hollow Reed begins to take shape as Oliver starts to sustain frequent, mysterious injuries, slamming his hand in a car door, or being harassed by anonymous bullies in the town common while riding his bike. Martyn, himself a doctor, examines the x-rays of Oliver's broken hand and concludes with a colleague that a much stronger and more uneven force than an automobile door was required to inflict such damage, particularly since the skin was not pierced. Martyn's suspicions run more and more toward Frank, whose career as a construction worker endows him with enough physical strength to be capable of the injuries Oliver has received. Hannah, meanwhile, derides her husband's accusations as jealous and absurd, outgrowths of his own essential perversity, and she observes in counter-attack that whenever Oliver has been hurt, he has had some contact during the day with Martyn and Tom.

It is difficult in a drama such as this to avoid the aura of television melodramas, where the nobility of confronting such an issue as child abuse so often overwhelms any rigorous attempt to maintain any dramatic tension or situational complexity. One strategy Pope uses to keep Hollow Reed interesting is by allowing the viewer a surprising degree of closeness to her characters, but still denying them for longer than we expect any glimpse of what exactly is happening to Oliver. The first few shots of Hollow Reed are taken through Venetian blinds, briefly propped open by the fingers of an unseen person, and that hushed mood of voyeurism traces into most of the film's first half-hour.

Pope's other coup in mounting the tension of her story is the remarkable performance she coaxes out of Sam Bould as Oliver, easily the best and most disquieting portrait among an ensemble of top-flight actors. Oliver, unlike most screen children but much like those of real life, is most obstinately silent when the adults around him most need him to talk. He has a fear of punishment, a reluctance to confess, and a habit of retreating into secrecy for which boys of his age are famous, and Paula Milne's script is smart to allow Oliver to remain moony and lip-locked for almost the whole picture. As a result, even after we have discovered the source of the problem—and the rendering of the villain once revealed relies a little heavily on familiar clichés of cinematic abusers—a fresh and enticing mystery persists around what Oliver is thinking and what he will say to whom.

The ever-reliable Martin Donovan does characteristically good work in the kind of interior, rampantly intelligent role at which he is particularly skilled. Joely Richardson, looking very much like her mother Vanessa Redgrave, credibly balances her character's icy contempt for Martyn and her indulgence of Frank and Oliver, though the script undermines her at a few key points and forces her into sudden changes of ethics and perspective that we cannot easily believe her character would make. Likewise, Hart is unflashy and appealing as the love interest, but his character is not integrated fully enough into the conflict to capitalize on Hart's abilities. As it stands, he seems present primarily to concretize the debate (interpersonal at first, but eventually legal) over Martyn's sexuality, especially in a nude encounter between the men apparently devised so Hollow Reed could look more daring than it actually is.

The cop-out into melodrama, embodied in a final confrontation that is far more public and exaggerated than any of these characters would ever allow to happen, doesn't really happen until the final ten or fifteen minutes. I am never sure how to interpret developments like that—whether one should be thankful that such compromises were staved off for so long, or to be extra perturbed because the film gave the impression for so long that it was actually going to finish on its own more steely terms. Whatever the case, the "hollow" in Hollow Reed is undeniably disappointing but occurs far enough into the last act that the preceding film—taut, well-acted, and visually coherent—deserves a look-see. Losing Isaiah, Hollow Reed: even the titles of these pictures, evocative of defeat and emptiness, seem to suggest some awareness of their own eleventh-hour collapse into simplicity. Hopefully a custody battle will one day be waged on film that won't be tied up so neatly. Grade: B–

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