Reviewed by: Chris

Sally Potter’s idiosyncratic exploration of conflict is almost a diamond bashed into a cheap ring. This film’s title is a clever intellectual device, an affirmation of the positive, explained in the ending by the narrator-philosopher cleaning lady, and in a conversation about numbers mid-film. As an anti-war film (post 9/11 and filmed during the early occupation of Iraq) it is rather less coherent, hinting at its theme obliquely through the love affair of an Irish-American woman and a man from Beirut.

The most immediately distinctive characteristic is that the whole film uses dialogue in iambic pentameter. In this it is brilliantly successful. The lines come naturally and I felt myself transported as if hearing Shakespeare in his own era. It runs the gamut from eloquent flights of poetry, unfurling like a woman’s hair from a clasp, to the foul-mouthed language of a punk-rocker kitchen assistant. It never once seems forced.

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The story follows a beautiful woman, maybe in her forties, played by Joan Allen and never named. She is a scientist, living a luxurious lifestyle but in a cold, ‘open’ marriage to a politician (played by Sam Neill). She strikes up a passionate affair with a waiter/chef from the Middle East who charms her one night at an official function she must attend. But having played the wonderful (and sincere) Lothario, he breaks off with her when he realises he is only valued for the image she has of him. He has to struggle to fit in, living in a western country, speaking English, adopting ‘her’ culture. Yet she knows nothing of him, his background. Not even a single word of his language.

It is in the portrayal of different – and far from simplistic – gender stereotypes that Potter excels. All the characters are beautifully hewn and totally unalike, each justifiable to him or herself. We don’t gain much insight into politics, but we do see interesting ‘types’ of women – and men. All portrayed with respect and highlighting our shallow understanding of anyone who might be of a different mental make-up to ourselves.

The film’s shortcomings can be viewed sympathetically. The religious rants are just that, and lacking depth. But would we expect more of most people? Perhaps not. But as the cleaner is prone to comment on everything, a few words of insight might not have been amiss. Or is it that Ms Potter knows as little about Christianity, Islam and Lebanon as the characters she accuses? Some scenes would have benefited from jump cuts at the point where interest wanes. One might argue that they are consistent with the storyline of over-attachment to a love affair or particular point of view. That did not stop me wanting the scene to move on instead of saying the same thing again in another impressive (if redundant) piece of verse.

The sudden shifts of location – to Beirut and Cuba – are visually appealing (even if Joan Allen actually had to be shot in the Dominican Republic due to U.S. restrictions on its citizens working in Cuba). But they also feel a bit of a cop-out for mainstream audiences. Potter claimed that, “Endings are notoriously difficult,” and technical problems and time pressures added to the production worries. But this does not assuage the reality that the intended political comment is explored without being well thought out. And that the choice of ending seems to be more for appeasing audiences than adding to a consistent whole.

Yes is a proud addition to Sally Potter’s highly personal and curiously successful work, but perhaps not the masterpiece she might have wanted.

Reviewed on: 21 Apr 2009
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A lonely microbiologist embarks on passionate romance in verse with Middle Eastern cook.
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Read more Yes reviews:

The Exile *****
The Dude ***1/2

Director: Sally Potter

Writer: Sally Potter

Starring: Joan Allen, Simon Abkarian, Sam Neill, Shirley Henderson, Sheila Hancock, Samantha Bond, Stephanie Leonidas, Gary Lewis, Wil Johnson, Raymond Waring

Year: 2004

Runtime: 100 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: UK/US


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