Enjoying Triumph of Love, a new film based on an 18th-century French play by Pierre Marivaux, requires just as many leaps in logic and plausibility as any heist caper or shoot-’em-up action film—only without the payoff of a cool heist or a bunch of dead bodies or exploding cars.
And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Perhaps it’s the influence of public television, but it feels much more responsible and proper to let go of logic in the service of a 300-year-old story than it does in, say, All About the Benjamins. After all, we’ve been giving Shakespeare all kinds of leeway for centuries now, so it seems silly to complain about the utter ridiculousness of Mira Sorvino dressing up as a boy and fooling everybody, despite the fact she still looks exactly like Mira Sorvino.
Director Clare Peploe, the wife of co-writer Bernardo Bertolucci, was obviously enthralled by the play’s negligible, fanciful plot involving a princess (Sorvino), her maid (Rachael Stirling), a hot young guy (Jay Rodan) and the brother-and-sister combo (Ben Kingsley and Fiona Shaw) who keep the hot young guy out in the woods, training him in rational thinking but sheltering him from the world. So the princess and the maid go walking in the woods where they see the hot young guy swimming naked. As every woman knows, this means the princess must have him immediately since there’s nothing more attractive than a guy who’s just been swimming naked. The princess and the maid hatch a plan: They’ll dress up as men to infiltrate the hot young guy’s little dynamic with the brother and sister, who spend their days philosophizing and studying the world. Then, naturally, true love will break out.
You’ve simply got to buy it, or you won’t have any fun here. Even then, there’s not a tremendous story to be told—Marivaux is no Shakespeare, or even Molière. The film spends nearly an hour looking for something interesting to do after the compelling first scene, in which the two giggling women cross-dress while in the back of a speeding carriage. The greatest enjoyment can be found between the lines—more specifically, in Kingsley’s caricatured performance and in Peploe’s humorous struggles with the meter and emphasis of her screenplay.
Kingsley plays Hermocrates, the sort of philosopher who wears one of those hats with stars and moons and green clovers on it. Hermocrates immediately realizes that Sorvino isn’t a guy—a welcome dip back into logic, since Sorvino looks less like a man than even Liza Minnelli’s new husband (less than Liza as well, to be honest). But when the “boy” insists she’s interested in Hermocrates, not the hot young guy, the philosopher buys it wholeheartedly. Kingsley, whose performance in Sexy Beast is still as cool on DVD as it was in the theater, has no problem in this slight role.
The same can’t be said of Sorvino, who continues to work in spite of the huge talent deficit stacked against her. God bless her spoiled, privileged soul, she’s just not very good—at this point, she’s Tori Spelling with an Oscar. Her line readings barely keep up with the pace of the play, and she’s repeatedly unable to attach any significance to them beyond their literal meaning. Her face is almost completely unexpressive, and she doesn’t move with any of the confidence a lead actor must have. It’s difficult to describe, but impossible to miss when she’s on screen against Kingsley or Shaw. Poor Romy.
Peploe obviously felt strongly about this particular work and its centuries-old belief in romantic love as the psychological equivalent of penicillin. She might have been better off adapting the plot into a modern setting, or even junking some of the poetic dialogue for free verse. It’s not an incompetent or offensive movie, but something doesn’t work here—and it’s not just Mira.