Directed by Robin Swicord.
Starring Bryan Cranston, Jennifer Garner, Beverley D’Angelo, Jason O’Mara, and Ian Anthony Dale.
To the outside world, Howard Wakefield (Bryan Cranston) has the lot – a beautiful wife, two daughters, a top legal job and a comfortable suburban home. But it all gets too much for him and he stages his own disappearance. In reality, he’s hiding in the garage attic, watching his family as they cope without him. As the weeks stretch into months, it starts to look like he can never back ……
There are times when you find yourself watching a film that really should be a stage play, one so focussed on a setting and a single character that it belongs in the theatre than on the big screen. Wakefield doesn’t just fall into that category, it fits like a comfy pair of old slippers.
Bryan Cranston takes centre stage as the eponymous character in a film driven more by his narration than by actual dialogue. We’re privy to his innermost thoughts as he rejects his affluent lifestyle and dedication to being a traditional husband and provider, going into hiding in the attic in his garage. Yes, his garage has an attic, which gives you an idea of how well he’s been doing financially! And he watches his family from a distance. His reasons seem obscure to begin with but, as he reveals more than he would like of himself in his internal monologues, we discover more. For there are quite a few, even if some of them don’t make sense to begin with.
The film is essentially all about him because Howard is a control freak who likes playing games. He manipulated his way into his future wife’s affections, plays jealousy games with her as a turn-on, but eventually the idea loses its fizz. As does their marriage. So, as he puts it, “who hasn’t had the impulse to put their life on hold for a moment?” He has a point: we probably all have, but how many of us have actually done it? And, more the point, done it in the way he does it? Because his absence is a cop-out, a halfway house. He’s not really gone away, just into another building. He watches his wife and family as they cope with life without him and, as time goes on, he becomes more and more absent from their lives.
It’s Rear Window – watching what’s going on in another building, through windows and not hearing what the others say – with a smattering of It’s A Wonderful Life. Not in the way that A Man Called Ove was a couple of weeks ago, because this time he sees how life continues without him before his very eyes. He might find it funny to start with but, when he realises that his family carries on without him, the sniggering stops. And loneliness sets in.
The majority of the scenes with actual dialogue are set in the past – there’s very few in the present and, when there is dialogue, we don’t hear it because it’s all taking place behind a window. That means he doesn’t heard it either, although there’s some comic moments when Wakefield imitates the person talking and what they’re likely to be saying. Chief target for that mockery is his mother in law, Babs (Beverley D’Angelo), who he’s clearly always hated: judging from what he reckons she’s saying to daughter Diana (Jennifer Garner), there’s no love lost between them.
The detachment between Wakefield and his family is so deeply embedded in the film that you don’t wholly feel involved in the storyline. But what does involve you and absorb you is Cranston’s performance. The film needs somebody of his calibre to carry it and he does it superbly, taking an essentially unsympathetic character but making him interesting, engaging and, as time goes on, fascinating in his transformation from a sharp suit to one of the underclass. All under his wife’s nose, even though she doesn’t realise it. Were it not for him, the film would flounder and stutter. As it is, he keeps it on track.
But this really shouldn’t be a movie. It’s based on a short story, originally by Nathaniel Hawthorne, and it’s amazing that nobody has adapted it for the stage. The end result is a vehicle for Cranston’s considerable talents, his ability to command the screen and give us a fully rounded character. He’s the reason for seeing this, so it’s just as well he’s hardly ever off the screen.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★