Movie Review: “Before the Fall”

 

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Here’s an idea sure to get your movie into a LOT of film festivals.

Turn Jane Austen’s “Pride & Prejudice” into a gay romance. Maker the “prejudice” homophobia and suggest the “pride” is, well, gay.

Writer-director Byrum Geisler’s “Before the Fall” uses the characters — a lovelorn Bennett, the proud Darcy, the cad Wickham, the mooning/swooning Bingley — and bends them to his will. Jane, the older sister of Austen’s book, becomes the straight BFF of Ben, not Elizabeth Bennett.

And in the movie’s cleverest conceit, Geisler picks up on all that scenic rambling those Great Brits do in the various film versions of the book. He sets this tale of love and misunderstanding in lovely Abingdon, in the mountains of Southwest Virginia, and shot his movie in the fall.

Everybody in Abingdon, home to the world famous Barter Theater, is into hiking. Yes, even the gays. Yes, even the bitchy ones (played by Daniel Wallen and Bryan Pridgen).

Abingdon is where Ben Bennett (Ethan Sharrett) practices law and looks for love. His pals (Wallen and Pridgen) complain that “the queens got left out.” But they have each other. Closer to stereotypes, they prowl and “Meow” at every eligible unattached man to wander into town.

New attorney George Wickham (Jonathan Horvath) gets Ben’s attention, and before you can gasp, “Elizabeth Bennett, you tramp!” is suggesting “Why don’t you stay the night?” after a date.

Cheerful nature-lover Bingley (Jason Mac) is also new in town, and once we’ve determined he’s straight, he sets off sparks with Ben’s gal-pal Jane (Brandi Price). It’s a pity he works for a non-profit, with no prospects.

And then there’s the haunted Mr. Darcy. Lee Darcy (Chase Conner) is a miserable factory worker living with Kathy (Carol Marie Rinn) and drinking. A lot.

“Why are you so miserable, Lee?”

Oh yes, Lee’s “confused.” In another twist Austen that would have given Austen the vapors, he’s an abusive drunk. Which is how he runs afoul of the town’s gay legal eagles.

If “Pride & Prejudice” can survive the coarseness of “Bridget Jones,” travel to India (“Bride & Prejudice”) and into World War Z (“Pride & Prejudice & Zombies”), there’s no reason it can’t work in this re-setting. But you’ve got to try and match the warmth, the brittle hurt and above all the wit of Austen. No mean feat.

Frankly, even though the “queens” of the piece are stereotypical, a lot more of their snark would have lifted this. When your funniest line is “Open your EYES, Shelby,” gays quoting from “Steel Magnolias,” you’re just letting us know what your movie’s missing — humor, and Southern accents.

Elizabeth Bennett’s flaws are usually harder to find in adaptations of the book — the sexy/saintly Jennifer Ehle set the standard. Giving Ben some of Darcy’s arrogance and meddling helps.

Bland performances mean that little crackles about the mismatched Bennett/Darcy relationship, and the only sparkle-in-their-eyes moments come from the straight couple, Jane and Bingley.

And there’s an edge to this that doesn’t fit the material. Domestic violence, alcoholism and a ready rural willingness to hurl gay slurs smother the warmth of the story. This 90 minute film omits about half the characters of the populous book, and the poverty depicted here is Appalachian genuine, not Empire Era genteel.

“Before the Fall” has the germ of a great idea, one that will get the film noticed and some festival play. But the promise of “Pride” is, in this case, not fully kept. It lacks the wit and the light touch to come off.

 

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MPAA Rating: unrated, domestic violence, adult situations, alcohol consumption

Cast: Chase Conner, Ethan Sharrett, Brandi Price, Jonathan Horvath, Carol Marie Rinn, Daniel Wallen, Bryan Pridgen
Credits: Written and directed by Byrum Geisler. A Washington House production.

Running time: 1:35

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