"You are here to heal, so start healing!" announces a plucky nurse (Linda Bassett) to a grumbling trio of wounded men convalescing under her care in a crowded London hospital room. Dramatically, the scene marks as good a place as any to focus on writer-director Jasmin Dizdar's complex and truly delightful debut feature, Beautiful People. Thematically, however, the line is a perfect summation of the film's elements, which seem, at first, utterly arbitrary. Charting the evolution of a score of wounded and dislodged souls -- mainly Bosnian refugees flung hither and thither among stalwart Brits -- the story unfolds in disjointed episodes, arriving less as a linear narrative than as a grand mosaic comprising violent surprises and, more potently, gentle gestures.
The assembly of these fragments (and fragmented lives) proves to be a stimulating undertaking, as Dizdar has drawn up a robust mob of characters to interact with one another. Two are bitter enemies, a Serb (Dado Jehan) and a Croat (Faruk Pruti), who open the movie by recognizing each other on a bus. A tiny riot ensues as the men scramble through London's chaotic streets bent on mutual obliteration. Their efforts land them, much the worse for wear, in adjoining beds in the aforementioned hospital, where their continued antagonism is attended by a third party, a burned Welsh firebomber (Nicholas McGaughey). The Welshman is as proud of his folksinging as he is of the 20 English holiday cottages he's reduced to ashes back in his homeland. It's an ingenious microcosm, especially when the men discover a common affinity for incendiary devices.
Inflamed via different means is Tory-bred intern Portia (Charlotte Coleman), who falls rather swiftly in love with Pero (Edin Dzandzanovic), a Bosnian refugee. The hapless fellow's confusion sends him headlong into injury, but he awakens, enamored, at the receiving end of her soupspoon. Like all of the film's threads, this romance moves very quickly, but the actors' guileless eyes render it quite credible. Why would a well-to-do British woman from a dreadfully stodgy family fall for a no-account immigrant laid out flat on his back? Why wouldn't she? the film seems to say, and it's easy enough to go with that flow.
Written and directed by Jasmin Dizdar
Starring Charlotte Coleman, Charles Kay, Rosalind Ayres, Roger Sloman, Heather Tobias, Dado Jehan, and Nicholas McGaughey
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More complex matters have engulfed the life of steadfast, heartsick Dr. Mouldy (Nicholas Farrell). As if it weren't enough to tend his two irksome tykes while fending off his abusive estranged wife, the overtaxed doctor has a moral dilemma on his hands. A young Bosnian couple, Dzemila and Ismet (Walentine Giorgiewa and Radoslav Youroukov), want to kill their war-spawned baby, which is due at any moment. Farrell's portrait of a struggling doctor and single father is a far cry from Dustin Hoffman's histrionic turn in Kramer vs. Kramer. It's restrained and assured work. As his charges, Youroukov's Ismet is a bit limp-wristed (until he gets down to brass tacks, anyway), but Giorgiewa is by turns radiant and rending as the mother-to-be. Once Dizdar has shown us her beauty, he lingers on her face to illustrate the anguish of her decision. With material like this on hand, it's pretty clear that this is not the London of Notting Hill.
Nevertheless, Beautiful People is anything but a "heavy" movie, and its wry tone proves very satisfying, even -- no, especially -- in tandem with some of the movie's other horrific plot devices. For example, in the surprise adventure of football hooligan Griffin Midge (Danny Nussbaum), Dizdar explores what might happen if a smacked-up yobbo from Trainspotting suddenly found himself in a position to be useful, and the result is rousingly funny. Applause should also be heaped upon Heather Tobias and Roger Sloman, who portray Griffin's emotionally paralyzed parents. Mr. Midge is the archetype of the staunch family man ("Charity work?" he sneers at his son. "You?"), and Mrs. Midge seeks to soothe souls by obsessively offering the only dependable balm she knows, the sausage roll.
Yet another primary plotline is woven through all of this, involving Scottish television correspondent Jerry (Gilbert Martin), whose sanity takes a turn for the worse after a tour of the Bosnian battlefields. In these segments, the haunted talk of the characters back in giddy London is given flesh, as well as some battlefield blood. It would have been easy to play the line as a definitive boundary -- war-zone there, peace-zone here -- but Beautiful People is smarter than that, and the tremendous emotional overlap is given stark illustration. When Jerry returns with a serious case of "Bosnia Syndrome" (hard-core guilt, essentially) as well as a sort of media-inspired mania, one wonders who his real enemies are, the snipers or the BBC. Even his wife, Kate (Siobhan Redmond, in a standout performance), is confounded, pacing her scintillating art studio, trying to answer Dr. Mouldy's simple question ("Are you still happy?") mere moments after showing him a vibrant painting entitled "Cataclysm of the Heart."
Beautiful People splays in countless unexpected directions, and Dizdar's ambition would have produced a cinematic train wreck if it weren't for the ingenious human touches he employs to connect all these disparate souls. Each shot is filled with enriching detail, borne of the director's knack for mise-en-scène, production designer Jon Henson's naturalistic flourishes, and editor Justin Krish's economy of images. Flashes of an Adidas shoe and a dead moose take on heightened significance in wartime, while an opulent family's silver trays and gravy boats become tools of condescension. (The latter is especially true when coupled with glib icebreakers such as "I am personally very much against ethnic cleansing.") The movie is deftly delivered and free of gratuitous gloss, yet enormously rich in its unassuming manner. Above all, it's a valuable document of displacement and re-integration, a true compassion infusion, and, ultimately, a celebration. As Farrell's doctor aptly puts it, "If life works out just a tiny bit in your favor, it can be beautiful, just beautiful."