Love and Death on Long Island

At first you think this uniquely funny and touching debut feature from writer and director Richard Kwietniowski is merely a clever tease. Noted British author, recluse and snob Giles De'Ath (John Hurt, at the top of his game) wanders into a London cinema to get out of the rain and see a suitably stuffy adaptation of an E.M. Forster novel. Instead, Giles is confronted with a gross-out American teen-sex comedy called Hot-pants College II. The horrified Giles is ready to bolt from the theater when he spots an actor in a small role who fills his cold heart with lust and longing. The hunk is Ronnie Bostock, played to the manner born by Jason Priestley of Beverly Hills 90210. Giles, determined to track down the object of his desire, travels to Ronnie's home on New York's Long Island.

The film could have been no more than a literary jest, a comic gloss on Thomas Mann's 1912 novel, Death in Venice -- also known as the gay Lolita -- in which the aging author Gustav von Aschenbach pants after boyish, unattainable Tadzio in the name of finding true beauty in jailbait. Kwietniowski makes sure his film isn't dismissible as a one-joke skit. In adapting the novel of the same name by essayist and film critic Gilbert Adair. Kwietniowski never trades in emotion for an easy laugh.

Hurt and Priestley provide the human dimension that keeps their characters from slipping into caricature. On Long Island, Giles ingratiates himself with Ronnie's fiancee, Audrey (Fiona Loewi), to wrangle an introduction to his beloved. Giles flatters Ronnie about his acting and about the potentially greater career the young man can attain with Giles as a mentor. Although Audrey sees through Giles, Ronnie is slower to catch on. Priestley playfully tweaks his own image as a teen idol, but never to the point of robbing Ronnie of perceptions about his own limitations. It's a delicately balanced performance that should open a whole new career for Priestley. Hurt is a marvel, most notably in the climactic scene when Giles reveals his passion to Ronnie even at the risk of rejection. This extraordinary film walks a tightrope between humor and heartbreak, and marks Kwietniowski as a newcorner to watch.