My Zinc Bed is a film written by David Hare, based on his play of the same name, which meditates on addiction, fidelity and friendship. It has a couple of very good performances, but a week third lead and ambiguous themes keep it from achieving greatness.
The film focuses on three people whose lives intersect over the course of a summer: Paul Peplow, Victor Quinn and Elsa Quinn, played by Paddy Considine, Jonathan Pryce and Uma Thurman respectively. Paul is poet and recovering alcoholic who is working in journalism to pay the bills. He is tapped to interview millionaire software magnate Victor, who eventually offers him a job. Victor is much more interested in Paul's alcoholism and his experiences with AA than in talking about himself, or in much else really. This causes some tension with Paul, particularly because Victor is very critical of the whole concept of AA, several times referring to it as a "cult" and claiming that those who attend meetings are "addicted" to the group.
Things only get more complex when by chance Paul meets Elsa, Victor's much younger wife. The two develop an instant rapport, and end their first meeting with a passionate kiss, which Victor almost walks in on. Elsa herself was once an alcoholic, though she has eschewed the way of AA, apparently at the behest of her husband, and appears at least to be able to take the occasional drink with no ill consequences. As the film continues, the lives of these three become more and more entwined, which causes continued pain for all three.
My Zinc Bed is simultaneously a character study and an exploration of alcoholism and its consequences. In both of these aspects, the film partly succeeds but has serious flaws. In a character study, in which not much in the way of plot transpires, highly competent and perhaps even inspired performances are necessary. In this regard, both Pryce and Considine shine. Pryce effortlessly portrays the opinionated, moralistic, upright but still humane millionaire as a man confident in his convictions, but still accepting of whatever life throws his way. Considine plays the struggling, weak poet with humor and grace. (For those not familiar with Considine, checking out his performances in at least Dead Man's Shoes and Close Your Eyes would give an idea of his range.)
The wobbly third leg of this stool, however, is Uma Thurman. Her first problem is her accent, which is presumably Danish since Victor mentions meeting her for the first time in Copenhagen. The accent is clearly forced and seems to shift throughout the film, often sounding as if it might be Scottish or British. Perhaps straining for the accent retarded her usually competent acting abilities, because Thurman fails to reach the emotional levels necessary for her performance to be effective. The obvious gap between Pryce and Considine on the one hand and Thurman on the other makes for some uncomfortable viewing at times.
Another issue, apart from the performances, is that the characters themselves are not particularly likeable. It is possible that this was not a priority for the producers, but it is difficult to empathize with any of the three main characters. Paul is weak and inconstant. Pryce is manipulative at times and judgmental at others. Elsa is self deceiving and whiny. These people are interesting, but do not invite the viewer to invest himself in their fate. This lack of care for what happens to these three removes much of the power of the film's denouement.
As for the exploration of alcoholism, and in particular the philosophy behind AA, the theme of the play could be best summed up by these words of Victor's, later repeated by Paul. "If you were cured, you would be cured of the desire. And who wants to be cured of desire?" This may reveal some inherent defects in twelve step programs, and AA in particular, but it leaves a lot unanswered and even unaddressed. Whether foregoing alcohol is worth the effort is at best skirted around. Paul is unable to write poetry when sober, and turns out brilliant verse when on the sauce, though he is then also subject to the humiliations of alcohol that he himself admits. Elsa as much as admits that her abandoning of AA has not cured her of alcoholism, and that she often spends nights in misery. What is being said here? It is not clear. This ambiguity leaves the viewer more confused than moved at the end of the film.
Confusion is not a state that most filmmakers want their viewers to be in after a screening, so it seems clear that My Zinc Bed fails at least partially. Having said this, the film is visually beautiful, carefully and competently made, and for two out of the three leads brilliantly acted. This is not enough to make it a great film, however, and a casual rental is all that this reviewer can recommend.