WFTB Score: 12/20
The plot: When a hard-up Jewish farmer leaves Russia to seek his fortune in America, he leaves behind a young daughter who is forced to flee herself when her life is threatened. She ends up in England, acquires the name Suzie and with her talent for singing sets off for Paris as a staging post to America. However, in Paris Suzie befriends carefree Lola and mysterious gypsy Cesar, both of whom will have a profound effect on her life – though the invasion of the Nazis ruins all their plans.
Russia, 1927, and a devoted father (Oleg Yankovskiy) makes the heart-breaking decision to leave his farm and beloved daughter Fegele (Claudia Lander-Duke) at home whilst he heads for the promised land of America. Unbeknownst to him, the village is soon after cleared of Jews and with a photograph of her father her only possession, Fegele boards a ship, not (as she thinks) bound for The States but for England, where she is taken in, given the name Suzie and subjected to the taunts of unsympathetic schoolchildren.
Suzie can sing, however, and this talent serves her well as an adult (played by Christina Ricci) when she comes to find a career, heading for the gaudy clubs of Paris as a first step to finding her father in America; in Paris, she befriends Russian dancer Lola (Cate Blanchett) and the two become room-mates. Suzie and Lola meet two very different men: Lola, looking for a rich man to look after her, works her way into the affections of Italian singer Dante (John Turturro), who gets them both work in the opera run by Felix Perlman (Harry Dean Stanton), whilst Suzie finds she prefers the company of fellow outcast Cesar (Johnny Depp), a handsome but poor gypsy who provides opera horses.
World War II begins, threatening each of the characters in different ways, and as Dante knows about Suzie’s Jewish heritage she is more vulnerable than most. Forced to leave Cesar, Suzie resumes the long journey towards her father, suffering further tragedy on the way; and even when father and daughter are reunited, the event is accompanied by new and unwelcome surprises.
As it shows Fegele/Suzie’s tough, tragedy-filled childhood, and proceeds to contrast Lola’s desire to climb socially with Suzie’s (equally doomed) quest for meaningful love and real belonging, The Man Who Cried reveals itself to be an attractive, lyrical film, paying close attention to the creation of both period and atmosphere. The latter is largely created through music, and from the difficult tunes of the gypsies to Suzie’s plaintive rendering (as both child and adult) of Dido’s Lament from Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, the film is sure-footed in terms of its score, vital given the importance that music has throughout the story, not least in Dante’s defiant, then collaborative, singing.
In their supporting roles, Blanchett and Turturro are very good at playing out their relationship of convenience – he gets sex, she gets material comforts – and the whole film is carried along by the theme of daughters looking for fathers or father figures, Potter directing with a detachment that allows the characters’ emotions to speak for themselves rather than being accentuated by artificial tricks. Particularly effecting is one of the film’s very few comic moments, also a moment of pathos as Dante and Suzie become the sole remaining performers at the opera, playing to an almost empty house.
Unfortunately, two major things hamper the viewer from becoming involved more fully in Suzie’s story. Firstly, her relationship with Cesar – an illiterate, taciturn man – fails to convince, not necessarily because of any fault of Depp’s but because the part just isn’t solid enough. It involves a lot of stares and a bit of sex, but for the relationship to truly mean something it should have had a climax, a consequence, a surprise – even something akin to Titanic would have been nice. Yes, Depp is a man who cries, but his and Suzie’s parting doesn’t feel sufficiently dreadful, when he is going off to fight for his life and she to remember him forever in a distant land.
And this is the second point; talented though she is, Christina Ricci doesn’t get under the skin of her role. Passing over the complications of portraying an English-educated Russian Jew (in her remarkably few lines of dialogue she goes for a plain, prim English accent), Ricci’s Suzie is an observer of all the goings-on, including the deportation of her Jewish landlady, but none of the traumatic events in her life (‘coming of age’, for example, or the death of Lola on the voyage to America) get built into her character, and at the end of the film she is just a child happy to see her father and sad to see him dying.
I don’t think her child-like appearance is necessarily a bad thing, though she is a good deal shorter than the other actors; however, as Ricci plays Suzie the last scene could have been filmed the same day as her first, and since she seems unchanged by her experiences, the viewer is entitled to wonder why he or she should be particularly bothered about them.
I’m not sure Ricci was miscast so much as misdirected, just as I believe Depp made as much as he could out of Cesar (there is the other consideration that Depp and Ricci had previously worked together on Sleepy Hollow and found the intimate scenes distressing, which may or may not show). Whatever, Sally Potter must take as much blame for failing to draw out a central element of her own story as she should take credit for making an otherwise thoughtful and beautiful film with an unusual but effective female sensibility. Worth watching just to hear Dido’s Lament, and though it’s flawed in many respects, it is for the most part fascinatingly flawed.