Friday April 5, 1996
"The Neon Bible" is not like any other period coming-of-age-in-the-South movies you've ever seen. It's not just that John Kennedy Toole's story takes a darker turn than most, but that it was adapted to the screen and directed by England's Terence Davies, celebrated for his autobiographical "Distant Voices, Still Lives" and "The Long Day Closes."
Davies' special gift for playing nostalgia against bleak circumstances and events made him the ideal choice for this project. Whereas most movies set in the 1930s through the '50s are lyrical in style, "The Neon Bible" is elegiac, formal and sometimes boldly stylized. The result is an extraordinary experience in which the familiar is made deeply and effectively unsettling.
(The ill-fated John Kennedy Toole was the author of "A Confederacy of Dunces," which his mother was determined to have published after his 1969 suicide; she, however, would not permit "The Neon Bible," a much earlier novel, to be published until after her death, in 1984.)
As solemn 16-year-old David (Jacob Tierney) peers through the window of a train traveling through a dark night, his story unfolds in flashback, commencing during the Depression. That's when his aunt, Mae Morgan (Gena Rowlands), turns up at the humble rural farmhouse of his parents (Diana Scarwid, Denis Leary). The glamorous, flamboyant Mae has seen her career as a minor nightclub singer dry up and has no other place to go. Free-thinking, free-wheeling, Mae is smart enough to tone herself down in this deeply conservative Bible Belt community.
Over the years, in fact, she becomes the mainstay of the family, since Scarwid's Sarah is fragile and Leary's Frank is given to angry despair in his struggle to make ends meet. A strong, resourceful woman capable of making the best of a situation, Mae is surprised at realizing she has become contented--at least she thinks she is. As in "Distant Voices, Still Lives" the coming of World War II has profound impact on David's family. When his father is killed in action his mother starts slipping into madness--and Mae gets a chance to sing again.
Rowlands seems to have been born to play Mae, a warm, earthy survivor, rueful over too many men and too many years slipping away yet far more susceptible to her dreams than she may realize. She knows she's no great singer but has style and personality; her "How Long Has This Been Going On?" is growly and plaintive, recalling Billie Holiday; her "My Romance" is simple, straightforward and very affecting.
She's a loving, nurturing woman, but has a steely strain of self-interest. If you can look at Mae in different ways, you can also look at the film's ending in different ways. You can regard Mae as a backwoods Auntie Mame--or as someone who should never have descended upon the family. "The Neon Bible" gives us plenty to think about long after it's over.
Photographed by Mick Coulter, who worked with Davies on "The Long Day Closes," "The Neon Bible" is a beautifully crafted film and period perfect. It is one of the few pictures to do justice to Scarwid, who underplays poor, gentle Sarah's remorseless disintegration.
Leary is just right, at once decent and desperate, as the luckless Frank. Drake Bell plays David as 10, and he and Tierney show us a shy, withdrawn youth who seems to have been overwhelmed rather than liberated by Mae's exuberant spirit. "The Neon Bible" has become yet another of Davies' poignant, ambiguous memory films--one you're not likely to forget.
The Neon Bible, 1996. Unrated. A Strand Releasing presentation of a Channel 4 Films, Scala and Miramax International presentation of a Scala production. Writer-director Terence Davies. Based on the novel by John Kennedy Toole. Producers Elizabeth Karlsen, Olivia Stewart. Executive producers Nik Powell, Stephen Woolley. Cinematographer Mick Coulter. Editor Charles Rees. Costumes Monica Howe. Musical arranger Robert Lockhart. Production designer Christopher Hobbs. Art director Phil Messina. Set decorator Kristin Messina. Running time: 1 hour, 32 minutes. Gena Rowlands as Aunt Mae. Diana Scarwid as Sarah. Denis Leary as Frank. Jacob Tierney as David at 15. Drake Bell as David at 10.