Investment banking and consulting: two jobs that every Harvard undergraduate has considered, however briefly, at one point or another. Some fully expect and embrace this fate, while others swear it off and vow never to be entrapped by the lucrative salary and promising financial future. If, in a fit of desperation and fear, you chose this career despite previous ambitions to do good and creative and exciting things, it can be a very uncomfortable, soul-searching experience to realize you have become what you once resisted. There are the inevitable what ifs about the past and why nots concerning the future, but the biggest frustration is your apparent inability to change both what was and what will be.
In Metroland, Chris, a middleclass office employee living outside of London, has made this type of choice, and has now reached the stage where he has a pretty good idea of what the rest of his life will be like. Although it is set in 1977 and refers to the rebellious rhetoric of the '60s, the film tells a story that has a place in every generation. The situation presented to the audience demands sympathy and recognition. With the versatile Christian Bale as Chris and Oscar nominee Emily Watson as his levelheaded wife Marion, Metroland delivers a refreshing and insightful examination of the regret that inevitably comes with the choices we make in life. While the film has many things in its favor, such as wonderfully unaffected acting and a skillfully adapted script, the most valuable aspects of this independent treasure are the very real questions it asks of anybody who sees it.
As teenagers in the early '60s, best friends Toni and Chris glorified everything French, fell in love with la vie boheme and, most importantly, rejected the suburban wasteland and lifestyle their parents submitted to. The mass of generic houses at the end of the London Underground Metropolitan Line, referred to as Metroland, disgusted and frightened these two aspiring artists (one poet, one photographer). The view of Metroland from the train is both boring and ominous-mile after mile of conformity, complacency and security.
The Paris sequence of the movie, in which a slightly older Chris is an artist/photographer/waiter, shows him trying to live out his dream. Metroland manages to portray the City of Light as it must have seemed to so many like Chris and Toni: the City of Life. Throughout the movie, but especially in Paris, the excited soundtrack and overlapping scenes and transitions give the sense that the city holds the key to everything Chris is seeking. The ultimate manifestation of the freedom he craves is found in his French girlfriend, Annick. One of the most passionately played characters of the movie, French actress Elsa Zylberstein brings to the role everything her character gives Chris: honesty, sincerity and a direct confrontation with the exuberant reality of life. An alluring face and a minimal number of sexual inhibitions, along with the prerequisite French accent, make her utterly appealing and fantastic to our hero. His whole existence in Paris and the memories he has of that time are consumed and dominated by their relationship.
But in the present (nine years later), Toni has traveled the world and is still scratching out tortured but unnoticed poetry, while Chris somehow ended up with a nice English girl, Marion, and a house in Metroland. Toni's intrusion into Chris' suburban bliss is literally a rude awakening. His visit is announced with a phone call that wakes the baby, but more than that, it awakens the desperation Chris has been quietly holding back. When Marion asks him what he has to worry about, Chris replies, "Nothing. That's what worries me." Toni forces him to ask himself, doesn't he like to have fun anymore? Whatever happened to all the glorious, glamorous plans he had? Now he's planning a photo book on the transportation systems of London. Isn't he bored with Marion and the mortgage? Doesn't he ever want to sleep with anyone else? We see Chris trying to have fun at a party he is too old to be at, and we observe his envy for Toni's seemingly carefree ways. We almost have to pity the poor boy, trying vainly to be young and idealistic again, or at the very least, to have fun. We also have to be a little scared, because in all three time periods, Christian Bale is a completely convincing actor--this despair could very well visit all of us.
Confronted with the life he has now, Chris is forced to find an answer to the scariest question of all: did he make the right choice? Can he really be happy being everything he vowed he never would be? But the main questions are, what makes him happy and is he happy here and now in Metroland? A wise stranger warns the teenage Chris, "Metroland is not a place. It's a state of mind." As the movie artfully demonstrates, it is not very difficult to fall into this state of mind. Of course, it's not too late for him to change course and return to his vague dreams; it's never too late. But in watching him struggle to affirm or deny his happiness, we come to better understand the essentials of this happiness that we are all so obsessed with finding. For all you future investment bankers, but also for everyone else who once saw endless possibilities after graduation, Metroland offers both hope and regret. If you can't change your life, at least you can change the way you think about it.
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