J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

The Man Who Lost His Head: Repatriation Rom-Com

The town of Otakataka on New Zealand’s rugged west coast is economically depressed and it is all Britain’s fault. Years ago, the dastardly imperialists lured Chief Takataka into a life of debauchery and captivity. Before shuffling off his mortal coil, the once promising leader left his wood carved mask to his people, prophesying its arrival would herald better times. Unfortunately, it has yet to leave England—and it is repressed Ian Bennett’s job to see that it stays there in Terry Johnson’s The Man Who Lost his Head, which might be turning up on select PBS stations anytime in the coming months.

Bennett’s entire professional life has been spent at the British Museum of Imperial Plunder, or whatever screenwriter Mark Wallington calls it. He is not very politically adept, but his engagement to the director’s daughter ought to give him a leg up over his showbiz oriented rival, Adrian Minter. Bizarrely, the museum has opted for Minter’s South Pacific exhibition over Bennett’s Egyptian proposal. That seems counter-intuitive for anyone with a layman’s understanding of museum attendance, but the fictional soon-to-be released Captain Cook film starring Brad Pitt partly explains it away.

Regardless, unforeseen complications arise when the museum takes Takataka’s mask out of mothballs. Tightly wound Maori activist Zac promptly files a claim, which the museum has no intention of honoring, but they have to put on a show of due consideration for appearances sake. To seal the deal for his promotion, Bennett is dispatched to Otakataka for some glad-handing and fact-finding that should all culminate in a summary rejection of their claim. Yet, despite his reserved demeanor and social awkwardness, a halting romantic attraction develops between him and Lollie, the local school teacher.

Essentially, Lost Head is like a Hugh Grant rom-com from the early 1990s, except the principals are ten or fifteen years older. It is a cinch that fuddy-duddy Bennett will learn some late life lessons and British imperialism will swiffered into the dustbin of history. Still, it is appealing to see middle-aged romance blossom on screen. As Bennett and Lollie, Martin Clunes (a.k.a. Doc Martin) and Nicola Kawana duly forge some pleasant chemistry.

Nevertheless, the narrative is such a by-the-numbers affair, it gives viewers plenty of time to pedantically pick apart the raggedy details. For instance, the precipitating claim to Takataka’s mask seems especially weak considering it has never been out of British possession or traveled off England’s green and pleasant land. The supporting Otakataka villagers are also predictably quirky, beyond all reason. Most frustratingly, Johnson rarely capitalizes on the surrounding natural beauty of the North Island locale.

This is a television movie that never exceeds the expectations for television movies. Fans of Hallmark productions that enjoy watching soulmates discover each other under unlikely circumstances should find it is safe and reassuring, but the rest of us will consider it a decaffeinated time-waster, at best. For Clunes fans, it is now available for participating PBS stations, including Kentucky’s KET, where it is scheduled for this coming Saturday night (8/30).

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