By Mark Saldana
Rating: 3 (Out of 4 Stars)
Two polar opposite teachers dealing with personal demons and disadvantages form a heated rivalry which fires up the passions of their students and helps the teachers deal with their personal troubles. I know that film synopsis sounds a bit contrived. However, with talented actors Clive Owen and Juliette Binoche in the lead roles, and with a respectable script by Gerald Di Pego, Words and Pictures actually works because of the filmmakers’ and actors’ genuine love for the material. Director Fred Shepisi, writer Di Pego, and his cast put much heart and love into this piece that the film serves as a compelling piece examining the power of two different art media on its artists and their admirers.
Clive Owen stars as Jack Marcus, a writer and English teacher facing a possible dismissal due to an alcohol-related indiscretion. Due to budgetary constraints, his annual school publication showcasing the writing talents of his students is also in jeopardy. Enter Dina Delsanto (Juliette Binoche), an honors art teacher, new to the school, who challenges Marcus and the notion that words are more important than pictures. This rivalry galvanizes their students to start a contest where they can submit their best work in the fields of writing and art. The passion fueled by their rivalry also sparks a romance between the two teachers.
Despite its contrivances, Words and Pictures celebrates both the impact of the written word and the beauty of images on a canvas. Shepisi and Di Pego obviously share a passion for the subject matter and aim to inspire as well. Creating empathetic and likable characters in Jack Marcus and Dina Delsanto, who both have their personal struggles with which to deal, makes the film that much more compelling. That’s what keeps this film from collapsing from its contrivances and clichés. Di Pego and Shepisi do make a questionable choice by including a subplot involving one student harassing another which literally adds nothing to the film and is an utter waste of time. Once the film gets away from this bewildering and distracting tangent, the two leads (characters and actors) truly add to the heart of the story so that it’s not just another movie about teachers inspiring their students.
Clive Owen and Juliette Binoche not only share a wonderful chemistry in the film, but they shine in their scenes without one another. They do exemplify a fun and witty case of opposites attracting. Owen’s loquacious and playful Jack Marcus is the yin to the yang of Binoche’s curt and inobtrusive Dina Delsanto. This relationship and the fire fueled by their rivalry make for some quality entertainment. The film also features fine performances by Bruce Davison, who plays Dina and Jack’s colleague Walt, Valerie Tian, who stars as Dina’s talented student Emily, Amy Brenneman (Elspeth), Adam DiMarco (Swint), and Josh Ssettuba (Cole).
The roles of most of the supporting cast are rather limited, but that works fine because Owen and Binoche have the talent and ability to carry this movie. It also helps that Shepisi and Di Pego do a decent job of developing these characters. Words and Pictures is yet another worthy movie alternative to a summer full of bombastic blockbuster offerings. In fact for some movie viewers, the battle of words and pictures takes place at the cineplex every summer–blockbusters versus character pieces. This film and its script may not quite win the battle, but they do make a good case for words over eye candy.