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‘Yes’ is more of a ‘maybe’

Story of an American woman who falls for a Middle Eastern man. By David Germain
/ Source: The Associated Press

Despite it’s affirmative title, Sally Potter’s “Yes” is a maybe at best.

The romantic drama starring Joan Allen, Simon Abkarian and Sam Neill is meticulously constructed and gorgeously shot, just what you would expect from the director of the delicate, sumptuous Virginia Woolf adaptation “Orlando.”

Yet the movie’s quirks and conceits — mainly, the fact that dialogue is delivered in sometimes subtle, sometimes sing-songy verse — quickly wear thin and distract from what little action the movie presents. What’s left beneath writer-director Potter’s parlor tricks is a story fervently performed yet dramatically drab.

Though Potter has a painter’s eye for framing and composing her shots, the characters feel distant, and their little tales of infidelity are uninvolving.

Potter tries to use her main story, about an affair between an Irish-American woman and a Middle Eastern man, as a parallel for Arab relations with the Western world. Perhaps because of that, the lovers’ relationship often is forced and artificial, as though they’re political puppets first, people second.

Or perhaps Potter simply was so caught up in her own poetry, both in word and picture, that she failed her characters as living, loving humans.

Many details of their lives are deliberately left vague, right down to the main players’ names. Allen is simply known as “She,” a Belfast-born, U.S.-raised scientist living a sham of a marriage in London with her philandering husband (Neill), a politician.

At a banquet, “She” meets “He” (Abkarian), a Lebanese doctor who fled Beirut and now works as a chef. Sparks fly, not so much on screen but in theory; Potter’s script demands that these two begin an affair, yet the relationship unfolds with deep intimacy but little passion.

“Yes” meanders about with great precision and not much point. She and He sleep together, cuddling and cooing. She and her husband quarrel bitterly. She has fitful encounters with family friends. He has a dangerous encounter with his kitchen help. She and He lapse into recrimination and separate, geography becoming the metaphor through which the future of their relationship will be determined.

Dialogue is arranged largely in iambic pentameter, 10 syllables a line. Potter wisely told her actors not to flaunt it, focusing on the meaning rather than the rhythm. That generally retains the naturalness of their speech, though the rhymes at times are florid and awkward, distracting from what the characters mean to say.

Delivered in such verse, Allen and Abkarian’s early pillow talk brings real freshness to the hyperbole of romance, like lovers in a musical unable to contain themselves and bursting into song.

Eventually, it just seems like a tired gimmick, while the sheer density of the language often undermines the exchanges.

Likewise, Potter’s fixation on housekeepers and cleaners as witnesses to the main players’ crises becomes a heavy-handed pretension. As She and her husband’s housekeeper, Shirley Henderson serves as a windy chorus speaking directly into the camera about what she sees, while other mute cleaners hover elsewhere, putting a period on scenes with cryptic glances straight into the lens.

It all feels empty, and in the end, “Yes” comes off like an elaborate shell game. You’ve dutifully kept your eyes on the shell concealing the ball, only to find magician Potter has palmed it.