Waterland (1992): Stephen Gyllenhaal’s Flawed Adaptation of Graham Swift, Starring Oscar Winner Jeremy Irons and Sinead Cusack

Toronto Film Fest 1992—Based on the acclaimed novel by Graham Swift, Stephen Gyllenhaal’s Waterland is an intermittently involving but basically flawed adaptation, due to structural and pacing problems, though the acting by the leads, Jeremy Irons and Sinead Cusack, is excellent.

Irons, in his first screen role after winning the Best Actor Oscar for “Reversal of Fortune,” plays Tom Crick, a fortysomething British born teacher, who struggles to make history alive to his students at a Pittsburgh high school.

When a bright but alienated student (played by Ethan Hawke) questions the personal relevance of history, claiming that it’s too distant and abstract, Brick decides to use his own life to make history more poignant and alive.

Crick tells the class of the hard, tragic lives of his parents, half-brother, and particularly grandfather, whose series of misfortunes has left the entire family eking out a living on the canals that thread through Britain’s marshy Fensthe “Waterland” of the title.

As the story unfolds, jumping from present to past and back to present, not always in a smooth or interesting way, we get to know Crick’s family, including his wife Mary (Sinead Cusack, Irons’ real-life wife), and how what was a passionate affair and marriage has deteriorated over the years to a childless, unhappy union.

Gyllenhaal, working from Peter Prince’s screenplay, goes for symbolism: Like the Fens themselves, which are half land and half water, the human relationships are ambiguous. The effort to integrate personal, family, and collective history is often awkward and pretentious. However, “Waterland” benefits from a shattering climax, in which Crick and Mary, and by extension the entire class of students, are forced to confront unexpected traumas.

Ambitious in goal, aiming to comment on loss and regret, hope and yearning, the execution leaves a lot to be desired, though sporadically the saga hits the right emotional notes and is quite touching.

Hollywood’s portrayal of school teachers is usually so schematic and stereotypical that, despite the film’s problems, it’s a worthy experience that raises some provocative questions about education, memory, and history-and the social responsibilities of teachers to their students.

End Note

Writer-director Stephen Gyllenhaal is married to the writer Naomi Foner (“Running on Empty”) and they are the parents of two gifted actors, Jake and Maggie.

Previously, Gyllenhaal has directed the feature films “Certain Fury (1984) and “Paris Trout” (1991).