Secret Places, a British film, comes from the Whitman's Sampler school of filmmaking. It has one of everything, or more precisely, one example of almost every dramatic situation which could possibly arise from its premise. The story concerns two girls at a British school during WWII. One is secure and popular. The other is a German refugee, which makes her position uncomfortable. The film concerns their friendship and troubles. As befits a British film, it is subdued and pretty. The British have had difficulty working up much cinematic excitement lately over events less momentous than the Cambodian self-genocide and Gandhi's struggle against the British. (The Company of Wolves being a notable exception.) Secret Places could profitably have been less polite.
That aside, Secret Places is professional and generally enjoyable. It offers the still unusual chance to see a woman's cinematic view of being a girl. If Zelda Barron's views were more original, I might find this a more interesting novelty. What she says has been said before, sometimes worse, sometimes better. It is a bit of a surprise that her viewpoint of girls' adolescence is little different from that of the less crass male filmmakers. Perhaps my surprise says more about me than about Barron.
Secret Places depends strongly on a handsome production. The photography, by Peter MacDonald, is very pretty, as is much of the English countryside scenary. Period detail is also excellent. Michel Legrand provides an unexceptional score with some romantic overtones. Since Hammer stopped making cheap Gothic horror films, almost all British films that reach America have been notable for meticulous production values. Those of Secret Places are not outstanding among recent films, but are used to good effect.
The other hallmark of recent British films is fine acting. Britain has always had a fortunate plague of fine actors, but previously their training better suited most of them for stage work, rather than films. The new generation of British actors and actresses is very comfortable on film. Secret Places features a largely unknown, predominately female cast of first rate performers. The film doesn't have a bad performance in it, evidenced by the fact that one can easily believe that each actor really is the character portrayed. This is the great advantage of using actors with little exposure. Since they don't carry a career-full of past roles into the film with them, they can merge seamlessly into the characters, providing, of course, that they are talented enough. The performers in Secret Places are amply talented. The leading roles belong to Marie-Theres Relin, as the young refugee, and Tara MacGowran as the British girl. Relin has an air of surpressed sorrow, even in her happiest moments, which is perfectly suited to the part of an adolescent girl torn from her country and forced to live among strangers who hate and fear her compatriots. MacGowran slightly resembles Vanessa Redgrave, though she carries with her more innocence than Redgrave could ever muster and far less rage. She is not a conventional beauty, which may be one sign of the influence of a female director, but her intelligence and kindness give her a radiance which makes the bimbos of teen lust movies look pallid. The supporting cast is fine. Jenny Agutter, the only familiar face in the cast, plays a rather brief and insignificant role, suggestive of drastic cuttings in the editing process.
Secret Places' greatest failing is that writer/director Zelda Barron, perhaps fearing that she might never get another chance to direct a film, tried to cram everything she could think of to say about a girl's adolescence into one film. The result, of course, is a lack of focus. One might compare it to one of those European tours which offer 12 countries in 10 days. "Over there we have the jealousy over a boy, to the left is blossoming sexuality, if you look carefully to the right you can see lesbian tendencies, and coming up ahead is an insane relative. Don't blink now, or you might miss the divided loyalties." And so on. Had Barron chosen one or two of these (and several other) topics to concentrate on, her film might have been truly moving rather than merely enjoyable. It would have been possible to make a film whose intention was to present adolescence as a time of many conflicting forces and problems, with the focus being on the terrible confusion of dealing with all of them at once. Barron, however, tends to present them serially and offers little comment on their interrelationship. (Secret Places is based on a novel by Janice Elliot. Perhaps all the threads were better woven in the book.)
Barron's direction also lacks focus, but she performs well on a scene by scene basis. She doesn't offer a particularly noticeable style of direction, yet she can achieve some nice effects at times. Her handling of the material certainly indicates that she is thoroughly professional, but she would be well advised to choose a script with a strong central story for her next film.
Secret Places is one of those films that you will probably like if a brief description of it appeals to you. If you are uncertain, its supporting virtues will probably ensure that you do not regret seeing it. On the other hand, if you prefer action, adventure, and comedy in your films, Secret Places is not sufficiently special to command your attention. I fear that Secret Places, already hampered by the necessity of an art house release in these times when high concept rules the major screens, is doomed to a brief life in the theaters. It is a shame that small pictures with a few virtues are destined to be outgrossed by nasty revenge films and witless action epics. If this viewpoint strikes a chord within you, I urge you to keep your eye out for films like Secret Places (others coming out soon are My First Wife and The Return of the Soldier). If enough people go to them, more such films will be made. If not, fewer. Sometimes it is wise to remember that your ticket money is your ballot in the selection of what films you will see in the future.
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