When I was younger, I was very influenced by certain British films made in the early '60s. More often than not, films like Room at the Top, Billy Liar, A Taste of Honey, and The L-Shaped Room deal with the average Englishman's struggle to come to terms with suburbia, and with the idea that perhaps there really isn't more to life than the 9 to 5 routine. Wife at home, baby in the cradle, and a whiskey decanter at the end of 35 years of service--there it is. "England is a land full of bank managers," remarks one of the characters at the start of Metroland, the new Phillip Saville movie. Certainly in 1977 (the year in which much of this gently disturbing, allegorical movie is set), that seemed to be the case to me, a socially retarded, angry young 16-year-old.
Watching all those old Alan Sillitoe and Keith Waterhouse novels-made-celluloid, I soon realized that--like the teenage Billy in Billy Liar who was forever slipping into daydreams of world conquest, looking forward to the day he'd finally escape from his small-town existence--I wanted more. Billy never got more, he never escaped to London. The pull of suburbia, of "Metroland," was too great for him. I was determined there'd be something more for me, so I left college, got a job as a screen-printer (in direct contrast to the rest of my siblings: bank managers, tax officials, and teachers) and began to dream of the day I'd finally move to America, the land of opportunity. I was determined to avoid the fate of John Braine's hero in Room at the Top, who turned from an idealistic young amateur into a heartless, cynical businessman. Considerably later, I find myself finally here....
Likewise for Chris (a very believable Christian Bale), the main character in Metroland, and his struggle for a better life. He's happy with a mortgage, good job, fine home, and kid, but he's also unaccountably vaguely discontented and often dreams of his "rebellious" past. Then one day, out of the blue, his childhood best friend Toni (a suitably baleful Lee Ross) shows up and accuses him of "selling out." What follows is a very revealing and moving insight into the psyche of a middle-class Englishman, as he tries to understand his discontentment and shrug off the promise made by his roving friend of a better life elsewhere.
Back in '63, Chris and Toni harbored dreams of the smoky jazz clubs and boulevards of Paris. They reviled the life of their parents and couldn't wait to be rid of it. We see this in one of the many well-integrated flashbacks that litter the film. By the end of the '60s, we see even lengthier flashbacks in which they've both escaped from the cozy suburban commuter li(f)e of Metroland: Chris to Paris, Toni to Africa and beyond. We follow Chris, during a time of student riots and sexual awakening. Oblivious to outside social forces, but still influenced by them, Chris meets and falls in love with a very direct, liberated French girl named Annick (Elsa Zylberstein) who, in her chatter and passionate lovemaking, embodies his Continental ideal. He's even begun to live his dream of becoming a fashion photographer.
Alas, dreams rarely last. In a short time, Chris meets an English girl, Marion (Emily Watson), who embodies his homeland's promise of security in her very proper, loving, reassuring manner . Despite his passionate declamation against England and all it stands for on the banks of the Seine ("Why would I go back to England? There's NOTHING I miss about England!"), Chris falls in love with Marion, moves back to England, and settles down. This is no surprise to us. We've seen them together since the beginning of the film. When put into the context of the present tense, however, these flashbacks become the shaky thoughts of a discontented man.
The choices Chris is finally forced to make, and his learning to accept the choices he's already made, are what make the movie so compelling. Emily Watson's performance as the quietly determined homemaker is simply riveting. Metroland is based on the 1980 Julian Barnes novel of the same name, and it's a film I would've been a whole lot happier viewing if I wasn't leaving this damn country for the final time in less than two weeks--and all for the love of an English girl (who wants baby, mortgage, and peaceful suburban life)! Like Chris, I don't know what I want from life and, like Chris, the pull of "normalcy" is surprisingly strong. Should I still be following the passion of my youthful dreams, a passion which I know subsides gradually over time? Or should I simply accept that I can't be forever chasing past ghosts, and move on?