Antony had Cleopatra but Antonia only has Jane. We are the lucky ones, however, because we have "Antonia and Jane," opening today at the Charles. It's a sharp, mordant film that may make you recall the great days of movie comedy before Woody Allen read Kierkegaard and destroyed himself.
"Antonia and Jane" is an exercise in clashing points of view: two British women friends take turns chronicling their own lives and their relationship with each other over the years. Of course each perceives the other as a paragon of success, both professional and personal, and regards herself as a hopeless wanker. This proves that after death and taxes, the third most inevitable force in the universe is self-pity.
But, like Woody Allen (another antecedent might be the great Bernard cartoons by Jules Feiffer in the late '50s), writer Marcy Kahan and director Beeban Kidron know that self-pity can be excruciatingly funny if it's treated ironically (treated seriously, it becomes oppressive in about .000006 seconds).
"At age 3, Antonia knocked me unconscious with a milk bottle. At 5, she buried me alive in the garden. At 7, she created a secret society and wouldn't let me join. Needless to say, I worshiped her."
That's Jane talking, in her usual dialect of self-loathing. Schlemiel and eternal masochistic nerd, Jane (Imelda Staunton) is typical of a species known as Homo Earnest. There are no ideas or pleasures, but only hopeless causes to believe in and ordeals to endure on their behalf. A kind of radical earth-mother at 20, a shambling, self-absorbed, oversensitive young woman at 30, she tries desperately to conform to the orthodoxies of her age.
She looks upon her childhood friend Antonia (Saskia Reeves) as an avatar of all that is cosmopolitan and smooth and self-assured in the world: Antonia is beautiful, has a flourishing career in a glamour industry (publishing) and wears sleek, clingy lingerie.
The two meet once a year for dinner, an utter ordeal for poor plain Jane, because by contrast to the stellar friend, her own life takes place in a pretty small pea patch. And Antonia has done one thing for which Jane can never quite forgive her, but at the same time, for which she cannot banish her: She stole the man that Jane loved and made him her husband. But it was all right: Jane got to be a bride's maid.
Alas, poor Antonia. The truth is, Jane hardly knows her. Behind those slim and silky lines and that to-die-for Oxbridge accent, her life is in smithereens. (The movie's corollary point: All lives are in smithereens!) Professional crises, dreary sex life, pointless adulteries, bitter professional crises: Her existence is a catalog of civilization and its discontents. She thinks Jane has seen through it all and come to terms, somehow, with a higher wisdom in the universe. Each thinks she wants to be the other.
Kidron manipulates these shifting visions for maximum irony. It doesn't help that Jane's self-hatred is a bit funnier than Antonia's chi-chi despair or that the movie somewhat loses its focus in the late going. But for a very long time, "Antonia and Jane" is brittle with comic malice and insight.
'Antonia and Jane'
Starring Imelda Staunton and Saskia Reeves.
Directed by Beeban Kidron.
Released by Miramax.