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In the Sedate Backwaters of the British Bourgeoisie

Based on Julian Barnes' debut novel, Metroland is essentially a dramatization of the Talking Heads song "Once in a Lifetime": "You may find yourself/In a beautiful house/With a beautiful wife/You may ask yourself/Well, how did I get here?" The hero of Metroland spends the movie asking himself that question; what gives the film its sly comic charm is that we can see perfectly well what he can't -- he got there because, rather to his embarrassment, it's where he belongs.

The locale is one of the suburbs collectively known by the title moniker -- the postwar "bourgeois dormitories" encrusted on the far reaches of the London metro line. It's 1977, and Chris (Christian Bale), a commercial photographer in his thirties, lives there with his wife Marion (Emily Watson) and baby daughter Amy. The narrative is set in motion by the visit of Chris' best friend Toni (Lee Ross), a struggling poet who's still rootless and enthusiastically non-monogamous.

Out of this frame, we get the background from Chris' flashbacks. The two young men grow up together in the same suburb in the early '60s, appalled -- perhaps understandably -- at their own Britishness, and of course they vow to get out and never look back. Both do, for a time -- Toni to wander the globe, and Chris to live in Paris, where he works in a cafe and tries to sell his photos. Sure enough, he meets a passionate, sweet, and sexually avid Frenchwoman named Annick (Elsa Zylberstein) who, for some reason, is quite mad for him. And sure enough, he drops her like a hot baguette in favor of the first nice sensible English girl who comes along.

In the context of Toni's visit, Chris inventories all these memories more than a little ruefully. He and Marion have been married more than seven years now, and the itch is getting stronger -- and Toni, who may have his own set of unfulfilled yearnings, quite openly plays the tempter with his old friend.

Even through the presumably rosy haze of his memories, we can see why he abandons rapturous lovemaking with Annick in his Paris garret in favor of a more sedate life: a Volvo, a backyard vegetable garden, and late-night feedings with Marion and Amy in Metroland. He plays the Bohemian in the Paris scenes, but he's not fooling anyone, not even Annick, who sees him as a nice English boy -- exotic for her, maybe, but the last thing he wants to be seen as. Marion has no illusion about him either, but she also awakens the homesickness that he can't admit he's carrying.

If any of this was played for torment and tragedy, Metroland would certainly be worthy only of raspberries. Chris is plainly talented but not so much so that losing him to advertising is any crushing blow to the art photography world. Annick is a lovely and decent woman, but her heartbreak is temporary. Chris doesn't get such a bad deal either -- a beautiful, patient, flexible wife and plenty of comfort from which to drift back to his misspent Paris days. And Toni's arrested boyhood looks as if it has its rewards as well.

Fortunately director Philip Saville and adapter Adrian Hodges keep the tone light and gently, insistently funny. Mark Knopfler's lyrical score moves the film along at an unhurried but never draggy pace, and the actors don't push.

The French stage actor and comic Rufus has a nice supporting role as the cafe owner who makes an elaborate show of how much he despises his wife, and John Wood has a sterling cameo as the wryly bitter Ghost of London Commuters Past. Zylberstein, with her round, beaming face -- a bit like Terri Garr's -- and effortless style, perfectly embodies the woman who young men go to Paris to meet, and the actress rightly sees no need to complicate this image. Ross doesn't gratuitously telegraph Toni's various agenda. Most gratifying, Bale doesn't mistake Chris' limitations for doltishness or emotional cowardice; he shows a surprising and by no means shallow passion for his chosen lifestyle.

Bale does most of the work, yet Watson, in what is basically a supporting role, is such an electric actress that her presence dominates Metroland. Marion is the film's most interesting character and also its most sexually sophisticated, another fine irony that, happily, isn't pummeled to death by the filmmakers.

Metroland isn't a daring movie. Its conclusions are a little too pat, too confident, too free of ambiguity -- Saville and Hodges and the cast seem almost more impressive for the mistakes they avoid than for what they accomplish. Yet on its own terms, it's extremely skillful, satisfying, and in some hard-to-define way, alluring. The film resides in the suburbs of art, an easy train ride from profundity. And as the story suggests, that's not necessarily such an unpleasant place.

Directed by Philip Saville. Written by Adrian Hodges, based on the novel by Julian Barnes. Starring Christian Bale, Emily Watson, Lee Ross, Elsa Zylberstein, John Wood, Rufus, and Amanda Ryan.