The film has the format of a thematically linked anthology, but it is actually intended--I think--as a single plot, divided into five historically distinct episodes. In each, Williams plays a guy named Hector. Each concerns Hector's separation from his loved ones, usually children. Throughout, there are other recurrent images and themes--boats, the crossing of water, priests, slavery of one form or another, ropes, the eating of chicken, and Hector's chickening out, giving in to fear or selfishness.
Presumably, these five Hectors are supposed to be seen as a single soul, running again and again through the same karmic loops until he gets it right. Hector No. 1 is a Neolithic cave man who allows a band of canoe-borne raiders to abduct his wife (Kelly Hunter) and children. For this shame, he returns as Hector II, the harried slave of a foolish, failed merchant (John Turturro) in a small town near ancient Rome. Hector handles himself rather resourcefully in this section, but he doesn't return to the family he's long been separated from, so it's back for round three, a medieval tour. As the traveling companion of a young priest (Vincent D'Onofrio), this Hector is returning to his family from--apparently--one of the crusades (he refers to having been in Jerusalem). Hector meets a lovely young widow (Anna Galiena), a foreigner. Although neither speaks the other's language (Galiena liltingly speaks the ancient European dialect of Friulano), the two hit it off, and again Hector takes a detour from reunion with his kids. This leads in to Being Human's best visual sequence, set during the Renaissance. Hector IV is one of a party of wealthy Portuguese travelers that has been shipwrecked on the coast of north Africa. While the ineffectual leader (Hector Elizondo) worries about finding food and water, Hector frets about mending the ill will between him and his former lover (Lizzy McInnerny), with whom he's had some unspecified falling out. Again, Hector withdraws from a chance at reconciliation--though for a very good reason--so we meet Hector V, a modern-day New Yorker trying to reestablish ties with his kids (Helen Miller and Charles Miller), whom he hasn't seen since his divorce several years earlier. All of these chapters are laced with delicately compelling sequences, all are touching and, in a quiet way, funny. They all might have been hilarious and heartbreaking, but they feel awkwardly set up, truncated, rushed through and unresolved. It's as if we were reading pages three through eight of a ten-page story.
The episodes don't hew very strictly to the central theme of delayed reunion with children, either. It's no more than a side issue in the Roman and Renaissance stories, and at the end of the medieval story, Hector is clearly shown to be on the way home. If he doesn't make it, we never find out why. Really, this is how it always is with Forsyth, the Scot who made such mild, sweetly dizzy comedies as Gregory's Girl, Local Hero and the marvelous Comfort and Joy. He has remarkable gifts as a director and writer, and he's possessed of a beautiful, humane vision. Yet what he ends up getting on-screen almost always seems vague, incomplete.
This didn't matter so much--it could have even been considered a strength--when he was making inconsequential comedies. But since his American debut, Housekeeping, Forsyth has been trying for larger and darker themes, and Being Human, as the title would suggest, is his most ambitious effort yet.
Something is also missing from Williams' work here, though it's magnificent at times. When he plays agonized emotion, he does it so nakedly that it suddenly becomes clear why he cultivates a faade of manic comedy--it becomes almost painful to watch him. He may actually have too much heart at his disposal. In the cave-man scene, when he stands on the shore and screams, "Mine! Mine!" at the boats leaving with his family, it's devastating. But as we watch his cowed, cringing act spread across the history of Western civ, we begin to long for some texture.
So maybe Forsyth and Williams couldn't quite pull off Being Human. Who could? Who could make a truly complete, well-rounded picture with this title and theme and avoid slickness and sentimentality? I can't think of another director whose attempt I'd rather see (or of a better star for that attempt). It's possible to fully realize that Being Human doesn't succeed at what it's trying to do and still love it for the ways in which it does succeed. Forsyth's dreamy yet sober approach to filmmaking--the directorial equivalent of Buster Keaton's acting--is inimitable. I'd rather see one of his failures than ten of a lesser artist's successes.