There was an expectation upon my first viewing of Waking the Dead. I'd read a fantastic, in-depth analysis of it and was prepared to pick up on all of the little nuances that I'd pocketed from the review. However, once I started watching it, I found that the small things, the nuances, the things that only another actor can pick up, weren't as important to me as I thought they'd be. The how had suddenly become completely irrelevant; the why and the what of their actions became the ultimate focus.
Not a spoiler: The beginning of the film takes place on the night that Sarah Williams (Jennifer Connelly) is killed in a car accident.
She'd been with an activist church group in Chile trying to help refugees escape from their repressive government when the car exploded. The first image that we get is her boyfriend (I hesitate to use that word. These two characters just don't seem the type to refer to each other that way, but, for lack of a better word...), Fielding (Billy Crudup), watching images of the flaming car on television and clutching his head. His posture is just so broken in those first few scenes... you know that whatever sort of relationship they'd had, under whatever kind of circumstances Sarah had left for her trip, this is the absolute WORST thing that could have happened to Fielding. Ever.
After this first scene, the film starts to cut between the present (1982) and the past (period of time between their first meeting in 1970 and when Sarah is killed in 1974). Fielding now has the opportunity to run for Congress. The current House representative was caught in an illegal situation, and Fielding has a very time to campaign before the special election. After a meeting one night, he hears Sarah's voice as he is walking down a snowy street. He is stopped dead in his tracks by the sound and he calls out her name to no response.
The moment out in the snow is the first of many experiences that Fielding has with what he hesitatingly thinks is Sarah's ghost. There are a few terribly sad scenes when Fielding begins to think that he's literally going crazy. Once, when he's walking down towards the subway, he thinks he sees Sarah in a brown poncho. He turns to look and it's not her. But as he's looking suddenly someone who looks like Sarah walks by in his peripheral. Everywhere he turns he sees her, and even for the viewer it's painful because sometimes it actually is her momentarily, but then when you glance again she's gone.
The premise of their love story seemed pretty cliché to me at first. Sarah is a bra-burning, civil rights demanding, church-going, far-left idealist who often doesn't shave her underarms and Fielding is a Coast Guard-joining, America-defending, blue-collar Democrat who is often times blinded by his ambition. At first I wanted to say, "Oh, it's one of those..."
But they way that it's filmed, and the circumstances of their conversations and, often, arguments, make the oppositeness of their convictions not cliché at all. You don't just root for one character because you disagree with the other one. The most compelling part of this film for me was that I can see a lot of myself in both of these characters. I want to be Sarah Williams because I want to be able to know that every moment of my life I'm able to say what I mean and mean what I say. I want to be an idealist, I want to work for a charity and not have to worry about money, I want to love what I do and know for a fact that I, personally, am helping to make the world a better place. I want to, but I don't know that I'll ever have her courage.
But I also want to be Fielding Pierce - he knows what he wants, he's ambitious, and he's willing to do what it takes to get to where he wants to go. If there's one thing about American Politics that Fielding and I definitely agree on, it's that in order to change something, you really need to be in it. There's a lot to say for having the guts to get out there and protest, to take stance as an American citizen; but there's also a lot to say for getting elected and changing it yourself.
Fielding's ambitions are high. Sarah asks him on their first date where he got the idea that he wanted to be a Senator. He pauses for a moment, looking very serious, and says, "That's not actually what I want... I want to be the President." Then, she just gets this look on her face and smiles. Fielding asks her why she's smiling, and she responds, "Because you mean it." Sarah just gets Fielding; they don't always agree, but she understands that he has a sense of destiny just like she does. There's actually quite a funny scene where he asks her what her sense of destiny was; she responds, "When I was a little girl I wanted to be a nun." He asks her what stopped her from doing that. She laughs a little and says, "Puberty."
I think that the most interesting aspect of their relationship isn't the fact they are two people who have completely different ideologies; I mean, they do, but they don't go back and forth between making love and arguing. There's more to them than that; it's not just a physical thing - they really try to understand one another. On the one hand they are both frustrated by one another's convictions, but on the other hand they are both incredibly attracted by the fact that the other has convictions.
There are a lot of contrastingly juxtaposed scenes in this film, and an interesting one takes place at one of Fielding's political parties, where Sarah's loses her cool with a congressman who's written an article in support of the Chilean government (which Sarah vehemently opposes). Fielding and the man are talking, with her standing to the side, and you can see this absolute rage start to boil under her surface. Sarah already has enough trouble keeping up at these parties - she tries to wear nice clothes (unlike her normal, groovy 70s knitwear), puts her hair up, attempts to wear makeup and pretends to like all of the people that Fielding admires, just so that he can move up the social ladder - and she does it all, because she loves Fielding. But, seeing Fielding talk to this man who's written something that promotes actions that are so far out of her range of moral and ethical behavior pushes her over the edge. She creates a bit of a scene that's embarrassing for Fielding, but is truly revelatory of her character.
After the party, they get on the subway to head home and she confronts him with his actions. She has no trouble (as she's shown us) saying exactly what she wants, whenever she wants. When she looks at Fielding, though, she just doesn't understand what he's doing. She feels like he's being drawn deeper and deeper into a group of manipulative liars and she's scared.
"I don't want to see you turn into a cog in their machine," she tells him. They argue, and she ends up slapping her knees, yelling at him, "It is so infuriating loving you sometimes!"
One of the things that I noticed (it was hard not to) was not only the contrast between Fielding and Sarah, but the contrast between Fielding with Sarah and Fielding without Sarah. This story is, after all, about Fielding. But the brilliant way it was directed makes her omnipresent; he's the one in every scene of the movie, but she's impossible to ignore. He really did think that he was going crazy, which meant that she could be anywhere; and the fact that she could be anywhere meant that she was everywhere. The dialogue and acting were enough for me to get the point, but the director took it further and made the atmosphere of either time period radically different. The apartment that they shared had a warm, snug, delightfully cluttered feel to it; his present home, decorated by his equally dull girlfriend, is full of minimalist furniture, with touches of cold steel everywhere. I never noticed it before I put these two pictures together, but the staging of both of them is very similar; I think they make great contrasts.
Billy Crudup, in this film, is as good as I've ever seen him. He is alone in many of the scenes and he is absolutely captivating. There are times when he is so lost for words, so confused and scared and angry that you fear he might actually have forgotten the lines. But that's how pain is, it's not easy to express. In one scene at a restaurant, he essentially spews out all of his fears and anxieties and paranoias at his family while trying not to cry. I actually found myself holding my breath.
As good as Billy Crudup is, though, Jennifer Connelly is a revelation. It's been said before (and better said), but I'll say it again. I simply can't imagine anyone else playing this part. She's young and idealistic, with her convictions and bushy eyebrows. But as confident as she is, she's also scared that she's too forceful. She wants to do the right thing, but she also wants Fielding to be happy and she wants him to stay with her. There's a scene at the end where she gives a phenomenal performance. Some of the pain that she had to go through. Like acid in the pit of your stomach, it hurts so much to think about it.
Beyond being an apt commentary on political tensions during the early 70s, this film was a particularly poignant reflection on our view of love after death. There is a scene near the very end of the movie which literally knocked me flat on my back. Fielding had already been having serious thoughts about whether or not Sarah had faked her death, but this scene provides the material for an affirmation. Personally, I think that yes, she is still alive. I know that probably a lot of other people may feel otherwise, but it's my opinion. The film left this aspect of her life open for discussion.