"Does the 20th century play any part in your life?" the host of a British radio program called "Wordsmith" asks author Giles De'Ath (John Hurt) in the opening minutes of Love and Death on Long Island. De'Ath, who pronounces his name "Daaaay-ath," as if he were lingering over his own demise, seems perturbed by the question. "I'm sorry?" he says, and we're left to wonder whether he's offended that someone would ask him such a thing or genuinely surprised that the 19th century is no more. A literary fuddy-duddy, De'Ath scribbles away in his study while the rest of the world channel-surfs and cruises the Internet. Like the medium he's finally condescended to participate in, he's wireless. He's about to become wired, however--hot-wired. Locked out of his London house one day, De'Ath decides to take in the latest E.M. Forster adaptation at the local cinema. But, unfamiliar with the whole multiplex thing, he winds up at a showing of Hotpants College II, a piece of American Porky's-like trash. And he's about to get up and leave when this...this vision appears on the screen. De'Ath will later learn that it's Ronnie Bostock (Jason Priestley), a struggling actor and bottom-shelf teen idol, but that won't stop the aging writer, who's recently lost his wife, from worshiping this two-dimensional Adonis. His face aglow with reflected light, De'Ath undergoes something of a conversion experience sitting there in the dark. Ronnie Bostock turns him on to 20th-century desire. Writer-director Richard Kwietniowski has found a wonderful tone for this gentle film about sexual and spiritual awakening--something between a smirk and a smile. After all, even De'Ath knows he's being ridiculous when, like a crazed teenybopper, he compiles a scrapbook of Ronnie photographs culled from fan mags. But he can't help himself, he's hooked. And some of the movie's most enjoyable moments are when De'Ath has to venture out into the modern world to feed his habit--e.g., when he's forced to spit out the words "Hotpants College Two" in order to relive the pleasure of watching Ronnie "in the flesh." Eventually, "in the flesh" isn't enough, however. Strung out on lust and love, De'Ath decides he has to see Ronnie in the flesh, which sends him across the Atlantic... ...to Long Island, where Ronnie lives with his girlfriend, Audrey (Fiona Loewi). I'm not sure the movie works as well when De'Ath goes from the two-dimensional to the three-dimensional Ronnie. Although De'Ath doesn't experience the inevitable disappointment, we do--as if we've been flung from a movie theater back to real life. And we begin to wonder what De'Ath sees in Ronnie. (So does Audrey, by the way.) The problem may be Priestley, who's set a few hearts aflame in his time but ain't exactly James Dean. That may be Kwietniowski's point, of course. De'Ath even talks about "the discovery of beauty where nobody ever thought of looking for it." But who has failed to notice Priestley's beauty? The movie might have been better off with an unknown in the role. Whereas it's impossible to imagine anyone other than John Hurt as Giles De'Ath; only Hurt can so skillfully maneuver his way through comedy and pathos, all the while holding on to his dignity. A stuffed shirt who's coming apart at the seams, De'Ath is a literary hybrid of Death in Venice's Gustave von Aschenbach and Lolita's Humbert Humbert, and the role might have degenerated into pastiche if Hurt didn't have such a firm handle on the material. He's always in control, even when De'Ath isn't. Kwietniowski, directing for the first time, also has a firm handle on the material. He never lets the movie soften into sentimentality or harden into exploitation. De'Ath is a celebrity stalker, after all.
Luckily, Love and Death on Long Island doesn't see him that way. It prefers to believe that star and fan, youth and age, low culture and high can come together without doing either side irreparable harm. In fact, each side may pick up something it wasn't even aware it was missing. Movies--particularly Hollywood movies--are often accused of manufacturing desire. This movie doesn't care where desire comes from, as long as it comes.