An impressive cast fails to save Tony Kaye’s film which teeters on parody
Henry Barthes (Adrien Brody) is a substitute teacher, making his living the hard way in the tougher public schools of New York City. Moving from school to school, he’s less interested in curriculum issues than in the temporary relationships he finds with the pupils he teaches, taking pleasure in defusing their hostility. At the same time, he finds some connection to the permanent staff he teaches alongside, the majority worn down and exhausted by the demands of the job. Yet despite his empathetic character, Henry is alienated from everyone by his own sense of personal detachment.
Director Tony Kaye was widely assumed to have gone missing in action after he denounced the final cut of his acclaimed drama American History X in 1999, for which Edward Norton received an Oscar nomination. Kaye unsuccessfully sued New Line, an action which many observers believed was career suicide. Taking the story of another outsider as his subject, Kaye has fashioned a film that feels uncomfortably personal, right down to the casting of his own daughter (Betty Kaye) as Meredith, a misfit student that Henry befriends.
Working from a script by ex-teacher Carl Lund, Kaye’s drama has a remarkable cast, with Lucy Liu, James Caan, Blythe Danner, Tim Blake Nelson, William Petersen, and Mad Men’s Christina Hendricks as fellow teachers, plus Marcia Gay Harden as the principal. Sami Gayle features in an affecting subplot as Erica, a teenage prostitute that Henry provides a shelter for.
Yet despite Kaye playing with a full deck of cards in terms of talent, Detachment never lives up to the promise of its opening Albert Camus quote. While Brody is likable enough, Kaye seems so intent on shocking the audience that his film teeters into self-parody, a self-important, humourless exposé of modern education that eventually becomes exhausting to watch.
Selected release from Fri 13 Jul.