#CDOTW, 2001: British director Sally Potter shines in ‘Trouble in Mind’

“Trouble in Mind” (1998) (6 stars)Directed by Sally Potter. Running time: 120 minutes. Critic’s rating: 3/4Star Emma Thompson stars as a deeply lonely woman working for the English Broadcasting Authority who, supported by no one, tries to escape her fate in this unflinching, yet quietly interesting, comedy.

This was the second full-length movie from Sally Potter. She’d been hanging around in the indie film community as a producer and executive producer, and was given permission by the London Film Council to make “Trouble in Mind.” It was her first scripted effort, and following its release, when more people came to know her, people saw her abilities go unexamined.

Robert De Niro was a co-producer on the film, and the documentarian Marshall Curry did the “behind the scenes” book. But there was very little human-interest journalism in the picture, in part because Potter didn’t care to see the human beings in it. She’d always been an expert in the use of observation as filmmaking, particularly the highlighting of character traits to make a point.

Thinking the film’s subject matter would be of interest to a broad enough audience, she (with help from the research department) hired the current BFI director, Amanda Nevill, as a camera operator. She’d apply to a research position in the government, then later serve as a curator at the BFI National Archive. In interviews she seemed to delight in talking about this movie and less in reporting the news. This makes it seem like she hadn’t given much thought to the actual demands of the job when she hired Nevill.

The fact is that for the characters in the film, Potter said the most important thing was that they “feel” something. There were plenty of tough, emotionless characters played by actors (no name actors here, no unknowns) who saw things on the screen and acted out a response, almost all of them pleased with the device, though they should have been horrified, individually and collectively.

The portrayal of Maud, played by Emma Thompson, may be one of the most powerful roles in British film. And yet Emma Thompson, a six-time Oscar nominee who could do any role and it would still be as convincing as possible, never says what she is thinking.

Despite the fact that Maud works in an empty office block, she keeps trying to have sex. She discusses her love life with three men, preferring that they stay separate from her because she can’t see them. The result is one awkward and humiliating encounter after another, which is meant to showcase her fears of heartbreak. This is not an actor who lets you watch an actor trying to imitate something, which is why she is inarguably the master of English humor.

What we see in “Trouble in Mind” is a woman holding on to everything that matters to her, to such an extent that she never thinks to ask anyone about how much that might cost her. None of this is surprising, given that there is no money in it — which brings to mind the only other kind of work that the British are known for.

There is so much bottled-up frustration and anger in Potter’s work that it is easy to forget there is any humanistic vision to be found. When Thompson gets to the sex scene with none other than Jeremy Irons (in his feature film debut) at the end of the movie, there is very little atmosphere, and plenty of heat. She is trying to “feel,” without a team. “Everything is in your head,” she says.

Often, Potter’s movies are involved in a very singular exploration of themselves. The film she and Evans made together, “Hot Fuzz,” spent an entire movie losing its way through a labyrinth of that genre’s clichés (for “Hot Fuzz,” that was a set of script-checking rules the three actors were supposed to all follow without fail). And though she didn’t go quite that far with “Trouble in Mind,” there is a very genuine tension in the background about how far the British are willing to go to live in — and not give a damn about — the future.

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