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Perils of the Paralyzed

It's about time Jim Broadbent starred in a movie. An immensely endearing actor whose supporting roles provided ballast to such films as Enchanted April, Widows' Peak and The Crying Game, Broadbent can take a two-dimensional character -- pained lover, garrulous father, rumpled dentist, knowing barkeep -- and imbue him with personableness, vulnerability and warmth. A large man with a frame that has room enough for enervation as well as for energy, he fully rounds out the middle-aged Brits he portrays.

The Wedding Gift shows Broadbent at his human best: playing a husband whose good nature stems partly from desperation and whose sincerity is partly a plea. The source of his pathos is his wife, whose zest and independence are undercut by a mysterious illness that afflicts her to such a degree that she can barely move. Broadbent's character's wife is played by another under-used performer: Julie Walters. An actress of wry common sense, Walters has been inexplicably overlooked since her Oscar-nominated leading role in Educating Rita, making do with scene-stealing turns in the likes of Prick Up Your Ears, Buster and Stepping Out. What a shame that when these two finally get top billing, it's in an underdeveloped movie that comes perilously close to being a disease-of-the-week exercise.

The Wedding Gift begins by stating it's based on a true story. Deric Longden (Broadbent) is in his bedroom getting dressed, making ribald jokes about ties and jockstraps, while his wife, Diana (Walters), soaks in the bathtub. When she doesn't laugh at a punch line, Deric calls out. Hearing nothing in reply, he rushes in to find his wife blacked-out and on the verge of drowning. This is the first indication of an undiagnosable creeping paralysis that leaves Diana wheelchair-bound. The movie does well when it shows how this inseparable couple deals with her ailment. In particularly British fashion, both Deric and Diana put on cheery surfaces that hide their private anguish. Clearly getting a kick out of each other, they make jokes while he dresses her, and tell each other frequently, "Shut up, love." Poignance comes when Diana contemplates suicide, an act she considers because, she asserts, as a paralyzed woman "something has to be mine." Deric, overanxious, replies that he is hers.

When their son arrives home and announces he's getting married, Diana determines she's going to walk at the wedding. This pledge forms the movie's plot, such as it is. Unfortunately, there's as little tension about whether she'll make good as there is development of her son's character. Screenwriter Jack Rosenthal further disappoints with a number of undeveloped subplots. Deric has a failing lingerie business; Deric has a dotty mum. The most tacked-on element involves Deric contemplating a love affair with Aileen Armitage (Sian Thomas), a blind novelist he meets who has qualities so similar to Diana's that, against his will, he develops feelings for her. Why she falls for him is left uninvestigated. How things end up for the triangle is of no surprise.

Diana's illness, however, is a surprise -- because I had no idea what ailed her until the closing credits told me. Director Richard Loncraine would have done better to provide clues more substantial than merely announcing the time frame is 1984, and that stumped doctors assume the problem is hysteria. He also should have avoided such manipulative techniques as having Aileen steer a stalled car that Deric pushes (symbolism, anyone?), or having Deric furtively wheel Diana into a hospital bathroom so that she can rip pages from her heretofore unobtainable medical file with her teeth (wouldn't it have been easier for Deric to remove them?). Just because these things happened in real life doesn't make them work on film.

Still, the performers -- particularly Broadbent -- almost pull off these fuzzies. He expresses grief like nobody else can: an elfin spirit encased in a wounded soul. Too bad the film is as sapped of vitality as was Diana.

 
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