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Perfect Strangers (2001)

Courtesy of Fremantlemedia

Main image of Perfect Strangers (2001)
Talkback/BBC for BBC2, 10/5-24/5/2001
2 x 90, 1 x 60 min episodes, colour
DirectorStephen Poliakoff
ProducerJohn Chapman
ScriptStephen Poliakoff
PhotographyCinders Forshaw
MusicAdrian Johnston

Cast: Michael Gambon (Raymond); Lindsay Duncan (Alice); Matthew Macfadyen (Daniel); Claire Skinner (Rebecca); Toby Stephens (Charles); Jill Baker (Esther); Timothy Spall (Irving)

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A reunion of the extended and prosperous Symon family reawakens old hostilities and exposes long buried secrets.

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Perfect Strangers continues Stephen Poliakoff's absorption in the ways by which the past influences and constantly invades the present. The past is present throughout, in the shape of photographs, clips of old films, relatives, family trees, ancient buildings, old clothes and half-understood memories. It's as if Poliakoff is determined to present a secret history of the past century, one which is dependent upon the minutiae of ordinary lives; the ephemera of Perfect Strangers is in the same mould as the caverns of discarded papers and photo archives of the writer/director's earlier Hidden City (1987) and Shooting The Past (BBC, 1999). Memory and its hidden meanings become a form of time-travel which has the power to completely change the present.

Such a personal view of history is linked to Poliakoff's fascination with the ways in which families work and how they become repositories of remarkable and unpredictable stories. This provides the perfect narrative excuse to indulge his love of storytelling, and Perfect Strangers is packed with manifold anecdotes, some of them long enough to become mini-dramas in themselves. But they always serve to illustrate and amplify the main theme of history as something very private and endlessly surprising. The use of varying film stocks and often harshly contrasting lighting distinguishes these stories from the main narrative and gives them a compelling visual strength.

The concentration on the family unit is central to the unravelling of the mystery of the photographs, with illicit relationships proving the key. Taken together with the concentration on the interaction of siblings, this might suggest echoes of Close My Eyes (1991), although this time, the sexual relationship is between cousins. As in The Lost Prince (BBC, 2003), Poliakoff views the family from the perspective of an outsider while mirroring this in the story of Richard's rejection by Alice and his brother and sister. The closeness of siblings is also central to two of the mini-dramas, both of which have ambivalent outcomes.

Like Shooting The Past, Perfect Strangers features the use of lengthy monologues filmed in long takes. This gives numerous opportunities for the distinguished cast, among which Michael Gambon, Matthew Macfadyen and Poliakoff veterans Timothy Spall and Lindsay Duncan stand out. The film is long but paced with cunning to keep the mysteries unresolved until the final moments. In this, Poliakoff is helped by his regular composer Adrian Johnston and editor Paul Tothill.

Mike Sutton

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Video Clips
1. Arriving at the hotel (4:18)
2. Meeting Irving (3:51)
3. The photographs (3:46)
4. Morning at the Foreign Office (2:32)
Byron, Kathleen (1923-2009)
Duncan, Lindsay (1950-)
Gambon, Sir Michael (1940-)
Poliakoff, Stephen (1952-)
Spall, Timothy (1957-)