Friends and Crocodiles (2005)

 “I don’t belong here, do I?”

The made-for-television film, Friends and Crocodiles charts the rise and fall of two people during the years 1981-1997 in Britain. When the film begins, millionaire entrepreneur Paul (Damian Lewis) catches a daily glimpse of the very prim and proper secretary, Lizzie (Jodhi May) on her way to work as she walks along the public footpath adjacent to his grand estate. Out of the blue, Paul offers Lizzie a job. This seems like a peculiar way to approach acquiring a new secretary, but Paul is an unusual man, prone to impulses, and he ‘collects’ people.

On Paul’s country estate, he’s more-or-less a permanent host to various friends, parasites and sycophants. There are a range of types here–two pretentious artists, a so-called ‘revolutionary’ thinker, a poet, a young man with amazing powers of recall, various Thatcherite politicians etc, and collectively they’re supposed to provide an atmosphere of creative energy. Well that’s the idea anyway. In reality, an atmosphere of decadence reigns with “each party bigger than the last.” No one really does anything about their great ideas, but a great deal of pontificating and grandiose posturing does takes place.

Not only does Paul collect people, but he also collects ‘ideas,’ and ostensibly he employs Lizzie to organize his ideas. These ‘ideas’–which mostly exist only on paper–are flung willy-nilly in a small room in a corner of Paul’s vast, labyrinthine mansion, and his genius projects range from alligators to windmills. Lizzie, a born organizer, sets to work and over time organizes Paul’s ‘ideas’ into some sort of workable format.

There’s a great deal of strain between Paul and Lizzie. At first, this strain appears to be rooted in the moral differences between Paul and Lizzie, and there are hints that sexual tensions and jealousy are at the base of their relationship. She seems very prim and proper, and appears to be morally outraged by the sexual hijinks afoot in Paul’s bedroom. Also, Paul seems to delight in creating chaos, and to Lizzie’s orderly mind, this is paramount to sacrilege.

Over the years, Paul’s fortunes wax and wane, and meanwhile Lizzie’s fortunes always seem to be in direct contrast to Paul’s situation. And as Lizzie rises in capitalist society, we see that it’s not that she objected morally to Paul, and neither did she really object to his opulent lifestyle. It was merely a matter of ambition, and she’d hoped to rise with Paul and his ideas. Lizzie and Paul aren’t opposites–they are two sides of the same coin.

The film charts the relationship between these two characters, and full of twists and turns, the plot is never quite what you expect. As with all Stephen Poliakoff films, Friends and Crocodiles is packed with sentimentality and clichés, but it’s still an impressively put together package. After recently watching, and being horribly disappointed by Gideon’s Daughter, I was almost reluctant to watch another Poliakoff film. Ultimately, however, this film was a pleasure. While not as good as Shooting the Past and Perfect Strangers, Friends and Crocodiles examines the nature of ambitious drive, the soul-destroying moral compromises often made on the road to success, and the relationships we create and destroy along the way. The film dives off the deep end in a couple of spots–for example, I was seriously worried that Paul was going to find the ‘meaning of life’ during his faux hippie-commune phase, and I was also concerned that the film was going to take the ‘rich genius with all the great ideas’ seriously too. Fortunately the film makes it clear that Paul’s various phases had their purposes, but ultimately excessive wealth creates an atmosphere of corruption and idea inhibition, if anything. I read some poor reviews of this film, so I was pleasantly surprised that it really wasn’t as bad as critics said, and it was definitely much better and much more entertaining than Gideon’s Daughter.

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