Cast: Joan Allen, Simon Abkarian, Sam Neill, Shirley Henderson
In the opening scene of Yes, a wispy cleaner (Henderson) of an immaculate middle class home turns to the camera after making the bed and confides in the viewer in soft, high-pitched tones, philosophising about the cleaner's role in the world and telling of a marriage turned irrevocably sour. She introduces the adulterous husband, a British politician named Anthony (Neill), and his Irish-American scientist wife, an unnamed woman known only as She (Allen). This narrator (who will return now and then throughout the film) speaks naturally enough, but if you listen to her words carefully you realise she is talking in verse, as will all the other characters in the story world of Yes, who never cast their gaze upon the audience.
It's true to form for the writer-director of this spellbinding film, Sally Potter, who, whether adapting Virginia Woolf's gender-bending, period-hopping novel Orlando (1992), casting herself as the student in the quasi-documentary The Tango Lesson (1997) or lavishly chronicling the war in Europe through the eyes of an aspiring opera singer (2000's The Man Who Cried), has never been anything if not ambitious. The premise of Yes may be simple - She meets He (Abkarian), a Lebanese ex-surgeon who works in London as a chef, and begins a passionate affair - but the approach is anything but. You'd expect this classic set-up to take a melodramatic course, but with the threat of social ostracism not an issue in London's disparate cosmopolis and neither party suffering a crisis of conscience over baggage (He is apparently single, while Her marriage is "open", childless and clearly damaged beyond repair), the lovers' romance hinges on their own attitudes towards the differences between them.
Potter wrote Yes after September 11th 2001, in response to, in her words, "the rapid demonisation of the Arabic world in the West and the parallel wave of hatred against America." Clearly she's in tricky territory for cinematic representation, and polemical films are often criticised for getting bogged down with their own agendas, but it's an inspired choice to use poetry to tackle the complexities of the ongoing East-West conflict at the level of the bystanding individual – as Potter claims, having her characters speak in verse "enables ideas to be expressed in lyrical ways that might otherwise be indigestible, abstract or depersonalised."
Only occasionally, in the film's more mundane exchanges, does the stylised speech seem forced and gimmicky (a scene where She meets a friend for an afternoon workout springs to mind), but elsewhere, particularly in a trio of terrific set pieces that echo Shakespeare, it works wonderfully. Take the second of these scenes, a heated argument between the lovers in a grey, derelict car park. His feelings of insecurity, alienation and frustration have come to a head after a violent incident at work and he threatens to reject Her for being an affluent Westerner who doesn’t appreciate his heritage. Potter’s approach allows him to carefully articulate his point of view in the language of semiotics (he furiously asks her if he's her "exotic other" and evokes the post-colonialist thinker Franz Fanon when proclaiming, "In your land I am not seen. I am un-manned."), but it still sounds spontaneous and, crucially, comes very much from the heart. Likewise Her defence, in which she makes claims for her own identity and individuality, would sound somewhat clunky in conventionally patterned speech.
There’s plenty else besides Potter’s script to savor in her film. Across the board the performances are terrific, but Sheila Hancock, who as Her dying Aunt delivers a parting soliloquy of exquisite tenderness, deserves special mention. For a film so dense in dialogue Yes also has great visual qualities. It’s true that the occasional use of slow motion, jump cuts and stop-motion photography is slightly irksome and somewhat difficult to fathom, but cinematographer Alexei Rodionov (who also lensed Orlando) and production designer Carlos Conti (The Man Who Cried, The Tango Lesson) have arranged some arresting compositions and realised the film’s many locations beautifully.
In the wake of the terrorist attacks in London it is tragically ironic that Yes resonates even more profoundly than Potter would have hoped. It’s a vital film for our turbulent times, when simplistic hardline views like those expressed by His young colleague Whizzer – “What do they do to give us thanks? They blow us up!” – threaten to divide the nation.