Wit, charm, and intelligence are not in abundance onscreen, so when a modest romantic comedy (with serious undertones) comes along that boasts all three of those qualities, it’s worth embracing—especially with Clive Owen and Juliette Binoche in the leading roles. Words and Pictures hasn’t earned stellar reviews in its initial engagements but I found it refreshing and enjoyable.
Owen plays a prep school English teacher who’s lost his fire; he still relishes the language but is worn down by the dullards in his class. He seeks refuge in the bottle, which does no one any good. Enter a new art teacher (Binoche), a well-regarded painter who is suffering from rheumatoid arthritis. She’s spiky but, like Owen, cares deeply about her chosen field. The two new teaching colleagues enjoy verbal sparring and wind up fueling a schoolwide debate about which is more powerful, the image or the word.
Each character is dealing with pain, and each one responds in a different way: screenwriter Gerald DiPego brings them together slowly and credibly, putting reasonable stumbling blocks in their path.
A film of this kind leans heavily on the appeal of its stars (which in this case is considerable) and the touch of its director, Fred Schepisi, who maintains a light hand throughout. We emerge with a good sense of the school where most of the action takes place, as well as the faculty, students, and community as well as our protagonists.
Owen makes a believable English teacher who is passionate about words and the beauty of language. Binoche is equally good as a painter dealing with a disability that threatens to curtail her work altogether. As it happens, all the artwork in the film is actually hers, and some of the film’s most striking moments show her using a variety of techniques to create her canvases.
Against the bombast of early-summer blockbusters, Words and Pictures easily stands out: a satisfying romantic story for and about adults.