Reviewed by: Anne-Katrin Titze

Hauntingly beautiful, Dustin Lance Black's directorial debut Virginia takes you into a cinematically unexplored world - A rural, apocalyptic South, seen through tinted water in windows, faded yard sale paintings with swans and ferns, carousels by the boardwalk, Henry Darger landscapes, suitcases matching the color of lipstick.

Jennifer Connelly has never been more subtle and astute. She creates a woman I haven't seen on the screen before. Virginia, played by a blonde Connelly with fantastic poise, luminescence, and humor, is a single mother suffering from schizophrenia. She dreams of leaving the small town where everybody knows everything, and of giving her son Emmett (Harrison Gilbertson) a better life. For many years, Virginia has been having an affair with the local Sheriff Richard Tipton (Ed Harris, exposing layers of longing and deceit with the slightest facial moves). He is not only married and a devout Mormon, he is also running to get elected to the State Senate. To complicate things even more, his daughter Jessie (Emma Roberts) wants to marry Emmett, who, possibly, is the sheriff's child as well.

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It isn't the plot that makes this film so riveting. Dustin Lance Black, who won a best original screenplay Oscar for Milk and also wrote the screenplay for Clint Eastwood's disturbing portrait of J Edgar, drew a lot of this story from his own experience, growing up with a physically disabled single mother in Texas. The way his direction treasures his flawed and trying characters is fascinating.

There are scenes where many a filmmaker would have stabbed the characters in the back, for a laugh or for shock effect. This doesn't happen here. There is, for example, an exchange where Virginia is trying to get a loan from the local bank. Knowing all about her, the flustered clerk tells her in a whisper and as a secret that "the bank is completely out of money". Connelly reacts with so much dignity that any snicker will produce a lump in one's throat.

Speaking of throats, Virginia coughs up blood, smokes and refuses to believe what doctors tell her. She lives in her own world, where cancer and a baby can grow side by side and a virgin birth is entirely compatible with donning the rubber suit her Mormon politician lover brings for her to wear.

Costume designer Danny Glicker elucidates Virginia via an eclectic, slightly faded and highly original wardrobe. She is a woman who invents herself daily through her clothes, somewhat like Little Edie in Grey Gardens or a Tennessee Williams heroine - not like a shopaholic. Tacky mall clothes could have ruined the film.

In a key scene, Virginia wears a frightfully transparent long summer dress and a big pink floppy hat while she is walking down a country road with her son, eating Rice Krispies out of the box. When I spoke with Dustin Lance Black, he called it the "most vulnerable dress" he could imagine. "Virginia's clothes transcend where she is right now," he said.

He and Jennifer did a lot of medical research to better understand Virginia's type of schizophrenia. A psychologist explained how difficult sounds are for patients with her affliction, how an echo can be traumatising and colour is one of the few things they can control.

Amy Madigan, feverishly working on a yellow dress, as Roseanna Tipton, wife of the sheriff (and of Ed Harris in real life) explodes with passion out of betrayal and leaves no whips and chains unturned, as she did when she scolded Jackson Pollock as Peggy Guggenheim in Pollock, directed by Harris.

"In the South, you wear your traumas like a badge of honor," Dustin Lance Black told me. "It's about how big you're dreaming."

Sometimes, when you are only half awake, you can will your nightmares into something quite marvelous, "a trip to the moon on gossamer wings," Cole Porter might say. Virginia is one of those things.

Reviewed on: 18 May 2012
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A psychiatrically troubled woman trying to move on with her teenage son, finds her way blocked by a sheriff with whom she has had a long-standing affair.


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