Lillian Hempel (Blair Brown) is an expatriate American doctor living in London with her feckless sister Amy (Bridget Fonda), a freelance dress designer. On holiday in Italy, Lillian meets the suave, handsome Raymond (Bruno Ganz), who makes a pass at her. Once back in England, Lillian is disconcerted to find that Raymond cannot be deterred. His pursuit of her is far from over.
Given the above premise, Strapless sounds like a gender-switched version of Fatal Attraction. But the film writer-director David Hare has made is far subtler than that. Like Hare's other films, it's at heart a subtle, open-ended character study and its dramatic conflicts are between and within people. Anyone in search of fast-moving action should best look elsewhere. It's a film aimed squarely at an adult audience; I saw it on its cinema release and watching it again in my mid-thirties, I found I saw more in it. The title is a metaphor, not only referring to the dresses Amy makes, but to a condition of life: free, without any means of support.
Hare wrote the part of Lillian with Blair Brown in mind, particularly as lead roles for women in their forties are in short supply. The result is easily her best work in a cinema film, and shows how much overlooked she has been. Ganz is perfectly cast as the smooth seducer Raymond. Fonda turns in a solid performance, and there’s an able supporting cast including Hugh Laurie as Lillian’s work colleague.
As with his theatre work, Hare roots his films in a recognisable social context, which dates it somewhat. Lillian works in a hospital threatened by closure due to NHS cutbacks. Amy's boyfriend is a press photographer, and in one scene he describes how the demand for his work has gone down – except for one thing. "Diana in a bikini and pregnant, and you need never work again for the rest of your life." That's a line that, with hindsight, is truly chilling.
Not counting his screenplay for Damage and the adaptations of his stage plays Plenty, The Secret Rapture and the self-delivered monologue Via Dolorosa, Strapless was the third and so far last of the films Hare made for the cinema, each time from his own original screenplays. It stands in the middle, better than Paris by Night but not as good as his debut, Wetherby. It says something for Hare's neglect as a director in his own country that it has taken an American company, Anchor Bay, to release one of his films on DVD. As a director, he's certainly self-effacing and in the service of his script and cast, but if you compare Strapless with the tedious film version of The Secret Rapture (which he did not direct), he comes off rather better than most. Perhaps making what are in effect Euro art movies in English – and the casting of Ganz is a definite nod to that tradition – was hardly the most fashionable course to take. In the last decade, Hare has concentrated on the stage with considerably more success, and a knighthood.
Anchor Bay's DVD is framed at the correct ratio of 1.85:1 and is an anamorphic transfer. As with Hare's direction, Andrew Dunn's camerawork is self-effacing; this won't be a disc you use to show off the picture quality that DVD is capable of, but there's nothing wrong with the transfer barring some minor artefacting. Strapless was a very late mono release, and that's the soundtrack you get on this DVD. There's nothing much to complain about in a dialogue-based film: it's clearly recorded, with unobtrusive use of music and sound effects. The only extra is the trailer, one of those quote-heavy efforts that tend to be used to market arthouse fare. There are twenty-six chapter stops, which is ample for a film of this length, but regrettably no English subtitles. Although it says so nowhere on the packaging, this DVD is Region 1 encoded and not region-free.
Anyone who has seen Via Dolorosa, either on stage or in the film version, will know that Hare is a good enough talker to hold your attention for an hour and a half, so a commentary would make a welcome addition to this disc. As the film, so the DVD: it's low-key and unflashy, but if it's to your taste you'll be glad to have it.