Autism. With the diagnosis on the rise, most of us find ourselves only a few degrees of separation from this little understood condition. Two of Hollywood’s most glamorous young newlyweds spent their first year of marriage exploring the subject in depth. Claire Danes stepped into the mighty big shoes of “Temple Grandin” in HBO’s effective biopic while her husband Hugh Dancy played Hollywood’s first big-screen romantic lead with Asperger’s syndrome in “Adam.” Both films rise well above a berth in the overcrowded “Disease Of The Week” pigeonhole, but let’s see which spouse lands the knockout punch and gets cinematic autism exactly right.
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In This Corner
The real Temple Grandin understands animals and autism in a uniquely instinctual and scientifically observant way; she has taught herself to be a renowned expert in both subjects. Her autism is a remarkable gift and a disability she has explored fully in books and lectures. HBO presents a beautifully rendered film about her journey. “Temple Grandin” star Claire Danes first arrived on the nation’s radar as a gawky teen in the never-topped television series “my so-called life” and has grown up beautifully before us on large and small screen. Still luminous and preternaturally gifted, her performance in this stunningly powerful, surprisingly funny, wickedly clever biopic lifts the material to the levels of excellence routinely claimed by most over-hyped HBO Films. It’s not TV; it’s HBO. This time, they’re not just whistling PR Dixie.
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In That Corner
“Adam” is a romantic dramedy, a cinematic illustration of the joys and perils of living alone in a big city with autism and falling in love with Miss Not-Quite Right, the unworthy-if-terribly-convenient girl upstairs. Director-screenwriter Max Mayer knows a thing or two about Asperger’s, and he uses what he knows. Adam (A Mister Right Sundae With Asperger’s Syndrome On Top) misses crucial social cues and exhibits genius, intense interests, rare focus, and a pathologically pronounced preference for routine. Brit Hugh Dancy plays the Asperger’s afflicted Adam with a wide-eyed, slack-jawed earnestness.
Danes inhabits the role fully and powerfully; she acts with her skin, matches Temple’s unmodulated voice, gives over her whole body and soul; those who haven’t seen the real Temple Grandin should give google video a little spin before watching the film to fully appreciate her characterization. It captures much more than an accurate impression would; she goes deep. We get it. And she moves us.
Christopher Monger’s and William Merritt Johnson’s very strong script is based on two of Temple Grandin’s books and doesn’t linger long in self-pity or melodrama. Instead, it strides ahead like its namesake, with an awkward rolling gait, through closed gates and locked doors and up shaky ladders. Director Mick Jackson focuses artfully and effectively on an evocative accumulation of visual details that add up to a fascinating whole, putting the audience inside a remarkable visual thinker’s mind. Sentiment and emotion are relative strangers there; our sympathies sneak in a side door as Temple grows up and learns to fit in with the wider and sometimes cruel world. Unlike the slightly overcooked Look-What-I-Can-Do imagery of “A Beautiful Mind,” Jackson uses remarkable restraint. He doesn’t show off all the amazing tricks he can do with editing; his exhilarating flurries and flashes move us and enthrall us and take us ever deeper into Grandin’s perceptions. I found myself wiping away tears at the most unusual and unlikely moments. Three remarkable actors round out the terrific ensemble; their unsentimental love and commitment shines in every unsentimentalized frame. David Strathairn plays a pivotal science teacher, Julia Ormond her mother, and Catherine O’Hara her devoted aunt. Claire Danes will be thanking a lot of these talented people at next year’s Emmys and Golden Globes, and I’ll be cheering for her.
The fictional “Adam” concentrates on his awkward pursuit of the unworthy girl upstairs, and the resulting brew is something of a mixed bag with no real narrative drive or power. It’s a Nerf softball lobbed at a slightly fuzzy target. The object of Adam’s affection is played by Rose Byrne, perfectly good elsewhere, but here falling a little flat and under-realized. Story points get piled on to fill the time, but the enterprise ultimately rings sweet and well-meaning but slightly false.
(You can read my earlier review of “Adam” –vs- “The Time Traveler’s Wife” for more smackitude.)
While “Adam” is a feature film released in actual theaters, the filmmaking was more pedestrian and less inspired than the filmmaking in “Temple Grandin” whose cast, direction, screenplay, and subject matter never wavered or faltered. Like its heroine, the film had a mission and pursued it singlemindedly and with great passion and focus. I admit that I had not spent much time considering animal handling in my past; the documentary “Food Inc.” has pretty much put me off meat for the rest of my life. That said, while watching “Temple Grandin” nothing else mattered to me but what mattered to her. Her interests were mine. I was absolutely swept away into her world. It’s filmmaking at its very very best, and I recommend you catch it on demand or on DVD. It will rattle your perceptions and make you see things in an entirely new and exciting way.
The truth, they say, will set you free. And “Temple Grandin” tells the unbridled, unadorned, unvarnished truth. Beautifully. Powerfully. Thought-provokingly. Sorry, Hugh. Your better half got the better deal on this gambit. And TV beats the movies.