Identity Crisis

On the wintry Sabbath referred to by the title of Jonathan Nossiter's Sunday, a middle-aged homeless man wanders the streets of Queens. Nothing new there. His name is Oliver (David Suchet), and he used to be a married, white-collar company man with IBM, but now he's divorced, alone, sleeping in a Presbyterian Men's Shelter, and he has nothing to do with his days. On a Sunday, he can't even look for work.

This particular Sunday proves unusually lively for Oliver, however. Madeleine (Lisa Harrow), a beautiful, middle-aged Englishwoman, approaches him on the street, mistaking him for Matthew Delacorta, a famous film director. She's an out-of-work actress, stuck in Queens in a bad marriage, and she believes Delacorta--whom she met once, briefly--must be scouting locations for his next film in the borough.

Oliver is overwhelmed by the unaccustomed sensation of someone actually seeking him out, wanting his time. Madeleine speaks to him eagerly, enthusiastically, and he can't resist letting her schmooze him. He lets her do all the talking. She doesn't expect him to remember her, and she takes his quiet politeness for reserve and aloofness--just what her faded professional status has led her to expect. He ends up in her shabby house, drinking her wine and making love to her.

This odd little encounter between two lonely souls is poignant, but it isn't as nasty as it probably sounds in description. Deeply gloomy, this comedy of mistaken identity is also sweet and frazzled, and tinged with the angry passion of the dispossessed. It's as if a Preston Sturges movie had been rewritten by the early Samuel Beckett.

By slow, elliptical waves, Nossiter, working from a script he co-wrote with James Lasdun (based on Lasdun's short story), lets us in on the guiding gag of the plot--that Oliver will spend this Sunday as Matthew Delacorta whether he likes it or not. He's basically a principled man, so he tries to play square with Madeleine before things go too far. She asks him to tell her a story--Delacorta has a reputation as a raconteur--and he uses the opportunity to admit who he really is, and why he allowed the deception to go on as long as it did.

When he then tells her that it's her turn to tell a story, Madeleine turns on the seductive charm and responds with a similarly fanciful-sounding tale. She is so busy reflexively auditioning that she doesn't realize she's just heard a confession.

As Nossiter keeps gently but insistently piling on these complications, Sunday takes on the unsettling quality of a grave, solemn farce. The leads perform with heroic restraint, eschewing both cheap laughs and cheap pathos. Suchet--popular as Hercule Poirot on Brit TV and as heavies in many American action movies--and Harrow--best known here for the third Omen movie and for The Last Days of Chez Nous--find an excitingly subtle rhythm for their emotional shifts. One minute they seem almost sinister, the next pitiful, the next gallant, yet the transitions aren't jarring, and they all fit into the characters. They make real screen lovers, too. In their pasty, fleshy birthday suits, they have the beauty and sexuality that come with fearless, soulful acting.

There's a whole second level to Sunday, in which the Oliver/Madeleine strand is intercut with quick glimpses of the other guys from Oliver's shelter. Perhaps Nossiter and Lasdun felt that it was necessary to depict the "real," routine experience of being homeless, as opposed to Oliver's twist of fate. The actors in these cutaway scenes, especially Jared Harris, Joe Sirola, Willis Burks and real-life street singer Chen Tsun Kit, are highly convincing, but the vignettes don't amount to much in themselves, and they don't really comment on the main plot, either.

There are other ragged edges to Sunday, and they must be at least partly intentional--a comedy about homelessness would seem suspect if it was too slick. But not all of this artful grit helps the film; some of it just feels like muddle. Madeleine's relations with her estranged husband (Larry Pine) never come into focus, and the film's ending is an unsatisfying nonconclusion. Overall, however, Sunday is an elusive and fascinating study in human need.

Directed by Jonathan Nossiter; with David Suchet, Lisa Harrow, Larry Pine and Jared Harris.



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