Two Vibrant American Sisters share a flat in England: It sounds like the premise for a frothy farce. But in the hands of British writer-director David Hare (Wetherby), it becomes a moral fable of resonant complexity. The older sister, Lillian, Blair Brown of TV’s Days and Nights of Molly Dodd, is a doctor who has worked at a London cancer hospital for over a decade. Devoted to her job but wary of personal entanglements (she’s just ended a long relationship with an actor), Lillian is the opposite of her giddy younger sister, Amy (Bridget Fonda), who has recently arrived in London to find work as a designer and load up on men and excitement. Both women are unattached – strapless in the figurative sense – and both are about to have their independence put to the test.
On vacation in Portugal, Lillian meets the mysterious Raymond, a cultivated European ardently played by Bruno Ganz (the angel who wants to be human in Wings of Desire). He follows Lillian back to London, lavishes her with gifts and persuades her to marry him. Later she learns that Raymond, who hides a guilty past, is more in love with anticipation than participation when it comes to commitment. The distraught Lillian also finds that Amy is pregnant and determined to raise the baby alone. Though pushed to the breaking point, both sisters ultimately rally against despair. Fonda is remarkable at showing the unexpected reserves of strength in Amy. And Brown, with her tart wit and piercing intelligence, makes Lillian’s struggle for self-discovery realistic and moving.
Hare uses these two resilient Yanks to indict his own country’s apathy. As a playwright (Plenty, Pravda, The Secret Rapture), he often lets his characters serve as mouthpieces for his rage at the materialism of Thatcher England. Hare’s political hectoring can be shrill, as it is when Lillian starts protesting the government’s National Health Service cutbacks. But Strapless rises above polemics through the strength of its humanity. Hare seems to appreciate the longings of his characters. Lillian’s romantic nature may temporarily blind her to Raymond’s duplicity, but it also keeps her eyes open to the possibility of change; she hasn’t lost faith. In this haunting, seductively powerful film, Hare sees the romantic ideal as a spur to action. There’s a cautious optimism in his approach now. It becomes him.