Peter Howitt/ UK/ 1998/ 99 mins
Available on Blu-ray from 13 May 2019
Having been unceremoniously sacked from her glamorous PR role Helen’s life splits into two distinct timelines when she fails to get onto a tube. One version actually gets onto the train and meets a jokey and good-natured Monty Python fan played by John Hannah whilst the original doesn’t and ventures onto a different path which is rather more depressing and signified by different hairstyles for the different Helens.
Straight out of David Fincher’s Seven, Gwyneth Paltrow shows off a pretty solid London accent as rather naive PR exec Helen. Her wide-eyed youthful enthusiasm has allowed Gerry, her eternally unreliable boyfriend played by John Lynch, to continue a previous relationship with the vampish Lydia, Jeanne Tripplehorn, whose performance at times threatens to stray into Fatal Attraction territory.
The creation of two timelines should produce two distinctly different outcomes allowing for all manner of possibilities as the protagonists showcase different facets of their characters. However, in the interest of ensuring that his labour-of-love first-time screenplay is accessible first-time director Peter Howitt has jettisoned any depth to those in the background and keeps the metaphysical implications to a minimum.
Howitt is best known (to children of the eighties) as Joey Boswell from the Carla Lane sitcom Bread. His deviation into directing can be better understood if we consider his association with John Hannah. Hannah’s short-lived but powerful influence upon the British industry after the success of Four Weddings explains how Howitt got his script in a room with Sydney Pollack who had the clout to turn eight years of graft into an actual project.
Taking the tired romantic premise of the good-guy-gets-the-girl first time director Howitt adds a metaphysical twist to this pretty successful offering from a time when ideas not connected to existing intellectual property could still draw a crowd. Kieszlowski’s Blind Chance may well have been an inspiration for the implications of coincidence and chance but Howitt was clearly aiming for popular approval with a rather stream-lined usage of the concept.
What was a fresh and thought-provoking interpretation of the over-saturated rom-com genre of the nineties now seems flimsy and burdened with a strange third act twist in which characters withhold information in order to set up a crisis before an unexpected shocking event. It creates an odd sense of uncertainty in the viewer when Paltrow’s mousy sweetness, Hannah’s pleasant charm and a soundtrack from the likes of Jamiroquai, Dodgy, Dido and (expensively) Elton John are undermined by this strange third act choice.