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Being Human (1993)

This tends to be written off as a major disaster, if only because it was the work of high-profile British talents (writer-director Bill Forsyth and producer David Puttnam) who committed the 'crime' of going for a large canvas and using a Hollywood star (Robin Williams) yet still didn't get a UK release. However, though it spans the ages, it's a rather small film, tentative as opposed to thundering, and can hardly have flushed away a Waterworld-sized budget.

Williams plays Hector, a fallible everyman, in five different historical periods, always fumbling crucial relationships but making a somehow-heroic effort. In prehistory, he loses his wife and children to raiders, but wins the respect of barbarians by protesting, though all he gets for it is being allowed to live. This may explain why he shows up throughout the ages, though the Hectors seem to be different but similar characters each time rather than an on-the-move immortal. In Ancient Rome, he's a slave whose superstitious master (John Turturro) assumes he'll be happy to join him when he is ordered to commit suicide for treason against the Emperor. In mediaeval Europe, he breaks away from venal monk Vincent d'Onofrio to accompany winsome widow Anna Galiena, with whom he does not share a language, but the call of home ('the sun on my back') prompts him to leave what looks like an ideal set-up. In the 16th Century, he is one of a party of Portuguese travelers shipwrecked on the coast of Africa, desperate to do the right thing by his ex-love (Lizzy McInnerny) as foolish, cruel society exerts itself. In a kind of parody of those Herzog-Kinski films, aristo Hector Elizondo botches his rule in the wilderness, leading to a ghastly but ridiculous conversion of a huge cross erected on the sands into a gallows which tips over when used. This Hector sets out on a journey he hopes will lead him home, though the friend he leaves behind (Jonathan Hyde), whose boots he takes, clearly thinks he's doomed. In the modern day, Hector is a property developer with a jail spell in the recent past who tries to reconnect with his kids by a dissolved marriage to Lindsay Crouse.

Beaches and the sea recur in the stories, with loves and voyages mixed together, also thoughtlessly corrupt authority trampling over the little man, but Hector experiments with different positions – master, slave, husband, father, lover – without excelling in any, though he does show a persistent decency that outweighs his various failings. Oddly, it's the dumb things he does – leaving Galiena, setting out on that stupid walk through the desert – that impress, if only because they're not easily explicable. There are carry-overs between episodes, like a supposed handle from a cup used at the last supper bought as a lucky relic in the middle ages which is metal-detected on a beach in the present day. A film that's hard to resolve into any sense, but it has interesting moments. A strange cast: Robert Carlyle, Ewan McGregor, Lorraine Bracco, William H. Macy, Bill Nighy, Ken Stott, David Proval. Narrated by Theresa Russell.
KIM NEWMAN

First published in this form here.


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