Viewed July 9, 2012
Thank goodness for friends who have access to an HBO Go account. Without such a person I wouldn’t have been able to see the very hard-to-find Dreaming of Joseph Lees (Eric Styles, 1999). I had once seen a teeny bit of the film many years ago when it aired on a cable channel in the middle of the night. Since then, I have never forgotten about it. So when my sister announced its temporary availability (through July 15) on the subscriber-only online streaming service, I jumped at the chance. Boy, am I glad that I did! Given its scarcity on the DVD (and even VHS) market, I kind of regret that I must spoil the film’s story in my analysis, but I hope that my enthusiasm for its representation of female desire and pleasure will convince you to put it on the top of your must-see list, if it’s not already there. (Amazon.com allows you to rent or buy a digital copy.)
A British production shot on the Isle of Man and distributed in the U.S. by Fox Searchlight Pictures in 1999, Dreaming of Joseph Lees is actually all about desire: the act and emotional and mental states of wanting as well as the wish to be wanted right back. Samantha Morton, in one of her early film roles, plays Eva, a young woman living in rural Somerset, England, in 1958 with her aloof father (Frank Finlay) and much-younger siblings Janie (Lauren Richardson) and Robert (Felix Billson). As her voice-over narration states from the get-go, she has been in love with her second cousin, the geologist Joseph Lees (Rupert Graves), since she was fourteen years old. Presumably, WWII and the subsequent reconstruction of displaced or otherwise ravaged lives have a lot to do with separating them. However, thirteen years out, the war is never so much implied. Instead, Joseph loses one of his legs in a marble quarry accident while doing research in Italy, a tragic event that delays his return home and his re-entrance into distant family affairs. Having given up the hope of ever reuniting with her childhood crush, Eva allows local pig farmer Harry (Lee Ross) to aggressively pursue her. Defying the expectations of her family, she even moves in with her possessive paramour. And that’s when Joseph re-emerges, to shake up her life.
The story is divided into two sections, pre- and post-Joseph’s reappearance. The first chronicles Eva’s day-to-day existence, working as a clerk in a sawmill, looking after her family, attending a life-drawing class some evenings, and even helping Harry’s adult sister, Maria (Holly Aird), learn to read and write. Anytime someone at home mentions Joseph, his injury, or his whereabouts, Eva is overcome with emotion. Morton uses her characteristically expressive face to relate Eva’s all-consuming infatuation, her eyes looking as if they’re on the verge of tears at just the mention of his name. Father doesn’t quite understand her fascination with a distant cousin whose name he can barely remember, but Janie knows all about Eva’s private longing. In fact, demonstrating the pleasures of sharing a secret with someone close is part and parcel of the film’s overall representation of female desire. Not to mention its affecting portrait of the intimate friendship between sisters.
During the first (approximate) half, Eva explores her passionate yet pent-up sexuality in the absence of her beloved. Eva accompanies Maria, who encourages her lovesick brother to seduce her friend, to the boxing gym where Harry and Maria’s own crush train. In a reversal of the male gaze, so dominant in mainstream narrative cinema, the women peek through the window to ogle the male nude bodies in repose following arduous physical exercises. Although eventually caught, Eva feels no shame. If anything, glimpsing the affable and unpretentious Harry in this space may comfort her in her subsequent decision to date him. After all, he had previously tried wooing her outside the sawmill by suggesting he “take [her] to heaven and back,” a proposition she first rejected because she not only views his euphemism for sex as immature, but she also would rather take Joseph as her first lover.
However, Harry and Eva’s first official date to watch a boxing match foreshadows their incompatibility. At the sporting event, Eva, goaded on by Maria, attempts to get close to the action, to be nearer the “blood and gore.” I have interpreted this to mean that she is interested in the male form in masculine settings, but the violence of the sparring and the encroaching crowd prove too much for her. Harry may come to her rescue, but not much can be helped. The fact that Harry’s nose bleeds whenever he’s nervous around Eva, spontaneously echoing the brutality of the fight, suggests that their burgeoning romance is unstable and unsustainable.
Despite this, their relationship intensifies. Later, she reflects that, even though she moved to his nearby farm and entered into a fully sexual relationship with Harry, she knew that she would never marry him. For the film spectator, this probably constitutes the most confusing decision Eva makes; why move in with him, in 1958, if you never wanted to marry him? It’s equally surprising that her father, who initially protested, allows her “to follow [her] heart,” perhaps believing that their cohabitation would later lead to marriage. However, it is clear that, at the beginning of their new living arrangements, Eva feels a sense of freedom, unbound by social restrictions and familial commitments. This release is no better expressed than through Harry’s masturbating Eva on the bed, under the frill of her skirt. This is the first of a few sex scenes in which Eva’s pleasure is highlighted—almost to the exclusion of her individual partners’.
Soon, things are far from tranquil on the farm. Harry’s possessiveness and emotional instability are too much for Eva to handle, but whenever he threatens violence against her or himself, she feels she cannot abandon him. (Late in the film, he kills his three dogs when, out of frustration, she pleads for him to get rid of them, meaning to shoo them out of the house. His misinterpretation of her feelings convinces her to leave, but she stays because he threatens suicide.) Thankfully, Janie arrives with good news that changes Eva’s life: the whole family’s been invited to a cousin’s wedding where she is sure to bump into Joseph, finally. The sisters embrace, Eva kissing Janie’s forehead in a tacit acknowledgment of their shared secret.
Although the audience has glimpsed Joseph before in scenes establishing his rehabilitation in Italy as well as through Eva’s memories of him, the wedding presents the first instance he appears contemporaneously. Sitting in the church pews, Eva looks over her shoulder as he enters the building, and at the wedding reception, she and Janie watch him from across the room, the camera assuming their perspective. Inter-cut with shots of Joseph are shots of Eva fidgeting with her earring, looking longingly and deep in thought. Janie is so desperate to see her older sister end up with Joseph that she rejects a man’s dance invitation to Eva and nudges her to go over to Joseph. If not now, when? is the thinking. You might expect a clumsy exchange, with Eva making an ass of herself. But that’s not the case. She skips greetings, and at first Joseph turns down her request to dance, citing his physical disability, but when she persists, he agrees. A tinkling lullaby-like score replaces the up-tempo song that the live band plays as they slow-dance on the floor with other couples bouncing around them. It is as if they are of another time and place, but the audience is made privy to their instant (re)connection. The melodramatic change on the sound track emphasizes the granting of Eva’s—and by extension, our—wish fulfillment.
In the next scene, my fear that Joseph would not remember Eva proves unfounded; they strike up an easy rapport, reminiscing about the past, and they both resent Eva’s father for tearing her away, as the party wears down. Their attraction extends beyond the event, with Janie mailing a postcard inviting him to the family home and his sending Eva coffee-table books on Italian art that she later pours over, as if looking for Joseph within their pages. Of course, Harry becomes jealous, throwing her book in the mud. He makes amends the next morning by cleaning and returning the book to its proper owner, but not without attaching a guilt-inducing line about how he would die if she didn’t love him.
Thus, even after we have met Joseph, he remains at a distance. An unnamed film reviewer in The Hollywood Reporter is frustrated that Joseph “remains an enigma” throughout the film. The supposed underdevelopment of his character is beside the point because we know Joseph as Eva’s Obscure Object of Desire. The pleasure of seeing him on-screen is bound up in the realization that Eva’s fantasy is finally made real and he is made flesh. For example, in the sex scenes between Eva and Joseph (which take place after she temporarily leaves Harry and surprises Joseph on his doorstep), Eva never appears naked on-screen, but Joseph’s skin is regularly exposed. The camera objectifies his body as Eva caresses it with kisses, particularly when, in bed with her straddling his torso, Joseph tells Eva the harrowing story of how he lost his leg. His vulnerability turns her on. So, although the short scene following the wedding party demonstrates his own sentimental attachment to his distant cousin (he rummages through photo albums and scrapbooks), it may not even be required. For it is enough that Joseph exists to reciprocate her feelings and want her as much as she wants him. Then again, I may be biased: I have enjoyed watching the actor Rupert Graves perform on-screen ever since 1996’s Different for Girls (Richard Spence), and I find him very attractive.
The thorn in their side, though, is Harry, who becomes increasingly more manipulative. His dangerous behavior lures a concerned Eva back home, a measure that Joseph understands and supports. To cut a long story short, Harry, who, I might add, had cheated on Eva before she ever left, disappears and worries his sister. Using Eva’s guilt over having wanted someone else, Harry traps her into staying with him because he breaks into the sawmill where she works and cuts off his left leg below the knee. Superficially, his act of mutilation suggests that he believes Eva will only love him if he is (anatomically) more like Joseph, but it more accurately recalls the disorder of his bleeding nose.
One might argue that the film isn’t feminist (enough) because Eva suffers for having desires and for seeking out their attendant pleasures, consigned to the position of Harry’s caregiver. I would argue, however, that it is feminist because the whole film is an exercise in fantasy-building. In other words, following feminist film theorist Elizabeth Cowie’s influential reasoning in “Fantasia,” the ending is satisfying for the (female) spectator of this romantic melodrama because identifying with and watching Eva’s desire unfold may actually be more pleasurable than the desire itself. It does not matter whether or not Eva and Joseph live happily ever after. The fact that she even had a desire (which Joseph reciprocated) is enough is please or “makes it all worthwhile.” Better to have loved and suffered than never to have loved at all.
But who is to say that our hope-against-hope lovers won’t end up together after all? The film closes with Joseph paying a surprise visit at the farm, which obviously stirs up a whirlwind of emotions in Eva. She still wants Joseph; he knows this. He has come to take her away, but she refuses to budge for the sake of Harry’s well-being. Her sacrificing their happiness wounds both lovers. And when Joseph loiters outside the house after their exchange, Eva, sensing his presence but assuring Harry she’s not leaving, steps outside. The camera lingers on their hearty embrace, which suggests that they are trying to savor each other’s presence, fearing a long-term and potentially permanent separation. (He’s going to Italy again for work.) Janie steps out of the house, smiling as she looks on. It is in this moment that her role as a stand-in for the film viewer comes full-circle. Throughout the film, we the audience have lived somewhat vicariously through Eva’s dreaming of Joseph Lees, which Janie has played an instrumental part in shaping.
Despite Janie’s approving smile, I still think the filmmakers leave their future open-ended. Maybe that’s just me. After all, I prefer romantic dramas to romantic comedies because I like being reminded that loving someone is, for lack of a better word, hard. Emotionally draining. Conflicting. Perhaps even dangerous. My sister, a rom-com connoisseur, thinks the hug between Eva and Joseph at the end means they do wind up together. I just don’t think it’s that easy. Besides, believing that their longing for each other will persist in perpetuity may actually be more pleasurable than seeing or imagining them, say, cutting into a wedding cake.