Jeremy Irons' collapse greatly buoys 'Waterland'

Nobody unravels like Jeremy Irons.He doesn't just wilt or fade or become slightly woozy and call out for the vapors; no, he deconstructs with the rueful inevitability of the collapse of the empire. Sick beams of regret and helplessness cloud his eyes, his complexion acquires the patina of faded blossoms, and his body seems to disassemble itself into a pile of pretzel bits. His last recorded expression is the look of the rabbit in the picosecond before the 18-wheeler turns it into a component in the road surface.

Poor Jeremy Irons! Lucky us!


And in "Waterland," we are very lucky, for Irons pursues the theme of collapse full-tilt boogie. His portrait of a high school teacher yielding to breakdown is a fully seasoned geek salad. His Tom Crick, a history teacher who no longer believes in history, turns fifth period into a psychodrama which horrifies and fascinates his lumpy students.

Like a character in Proust, Irons' Crick is haunted by memories of things past. He feels waterlogged by his youth and its tragedies and the oozy weeds about him twist, as those forays into madness past beckon him into madness present. Meanwhile, his dim American students wonder, like, what is the deal with this guy?


Pain is the deal, he explains. His wife (Sinead Cusack) is even further gone than he is; they're a dotty couple on the way to hell. Both hale from the Fens, a sopping part of Britain reclaimed by the sea (thus the name Waterland) that must be channeled and drained on a daily basis to keep from going under. The life in such a place is inevitably tragic; after all, everybody grew up reading Thomas Hardy.

The movie takes place in a weirdly shifting zone, just as the water and the land shift beneath your feet in the Fens: it takes place now in Pittsburgh, which is actually then, being 1974 (so that the youngish-looking Irons can have had a childhood in World War II); and it takes place in Crick's childhood, where his simple older brother was the strongest boy in the village, a born hero, but also doomed to an early and wet death; and it takes place in an indeterminate sector between the now and the then in which Tom appears, with his students, and wanders about pointing out the icons of his childhood like the Disney Adventureland guide who always shoots the hippopotamus in the plastic Africa of Orlando.

The director, Stephen Gyllenhaal, keeps the movie -- to stretch the aquatic metaphor -- fluid. It floats and glides through time and pain, deftly sustaining the three contrapuntal narratives. The screenwriter, Peter Prince, who adapted the screenplay from a novel by Graham Swift, has a small gift for such shenanigans; he once wrote an entire novel in which the narrative fractured into three strains, and ran three columns down his pages, combining and recombining brilliantly.

The movie is as delicate as a Victorian doily, all filigree and preciousness. It teeters on the edge of absurdity, but the passion in Irons' dark eyes and the peculiar intensity in the acting all the way through prevents it from the collapse it loves to chronicle. It isn't good, exactly, but it certainly is fascinating.


Starring Jeremy Irons.

Directed by Stephen Gyllenhaal.

Released by Miramax.


Rated R.

** 1/2 stars