Even if it delves into the topic, it would be difficult to suggest that “The Rehearsal” (2106) offers up a clear idea of exactly what it takes to be an actor. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the New York Film Festival selection directed by Alison Maclean offers up an idea of what this particular group of students is willing to do to learn the craft.
The film is based on the novel by Eleanor Catton, with a screenplay from Maclean and Emily Perkins. James Rolleston (“Boy”) is front and center as Stanley, a young man in his first year at drama school. It is explained to Stanley and his classmates that the program at their school during this year is going to be an emotional experience, that they’re, essentially, going to be broken down and built back up again. And so, we watch as they are. Or, rather, we watch as Stanley deals with both class and his personal life in the from of a burgeoning romance with a girl from the town, Isolde (Ella Edward). He is broken down, but the movie never connects that with anything pressed upon him in class.
“The Rehearsal” is a frustrating film to watch because Stanley, as nice as he may be, can’t seem to get out of his own way. He quite unnecessarily makes all his problems… and then doubles down on them.
This is truly evident with his relationship with Isolde, whose sister had an affair with her tennis instructor (the sister was 15 at the time), which, resulted in a scandal. This scandal then is what Stanley and his classmates want to base a play on for their final project.
It is as ill-conceived an idea as it sounds, and Stanley knows it. He knows it to the point where he doesn’t want to tell Isolde it’s happening or to ask her how she feels about it. So, the audience watches, well aware that the entire thing is going to hit the fan and not understanding why Stanley won’t speak up.
There is some attempt in the film to balance what we see in the tennis teacher with the woman who runs the drama school, Hannah (Kerry Fox), some notion that they are both using this younger generation for their own benefit. However, the film is not told from their point of view, outside of a random conversation with the tennis instructor, he’s barely a character, and while Hannah is more present, the film never goes behind the curtain with her.
But then, for a movie that unfolds over the course of a year, with Stanley having months on end to tell Isolde about the play, we never go behind the curtain with him either. The only answer we get is that Stanley is afraid to tell Isolde, and while that makes sense, the classes Stanley takes are very much about confronting fear, and Stanley seems to excel in the classes. Why he can’t take the next step isn’t perplexing as much as it feels not considered.
Despite its issues, Rolleston is still able to show us Stanley’s growth and change and uncertainty. He is a powerful presence on screen even when his character’s motivations remain a mystery.
Rolleston is, however, stuck in an unfortunate tale, one which, like its characters, dances around issues rather than facing them head on. Virtually all the acting students, no matter what troubles befall them, seem to move on to the next thing, to the next moment. It isn’t that they don’t feel the hurt or the pain, it is just that the movie doesn’t explore it.
When Stanley and his group do finally present their final project, what is supposed to come across as daring and unique, is actually wholly telegraphed. In fact, it is the single most disappointing thing about the movie. The final shot is absolutely gorgeous, but it doesn’t fix the problems.
“The Rehearsal” is a movie which constantly feels as though it is on the verge of greatness, that any second it is going to turn the corner and go from a mediocre pseudo-exploration of what it is to grow up into a full-blown, heartrending detailed examination. However, the jump is never made, the corner is never turned and it is far more disappointing for this shortcoming.
photo credit: NYFF