Adolescence. Schoolgirls. First love and the gulf between innocence and experience. The isolation of being different. Just when you thought that any of these themes would be enough to warn you away from a film, we have "Secret Places" (Cineplex), a complex, intelligent, beautiful film that is both the debut of its director, Zelda Barron, and the unveiling of two exceptional young actresses: Marie-Theres Relin and Tara MacGowran.
Part of the appeal of "Secret Places" is its era and setting: a girls' private school in urban England in the early years of World War II. Light years away, it seems, when one had "pashes" on other girls, when boys were referred to in the confidence of a diary as "the divine one," and when the whole darkly glorious matter of sex remained a mystery for almost all of high school.
The war is the added element in the pressure cooker of adolescence: It's what brings quietly worldly Laura Meister (Marie-Theres Relin) to England as a refugee with the rest of her German family, her physicist-father (Klaus Barner) and her beautiful, emotionally erratic mother (Claudine Auger).
Shy, smart, definitely unsophisticated Patience MacKenzie (Tara MacGowran) has the honor of being the upper-form girl at Prince Albert School on whom most of the younger girls concentrate their "pashes." But as Patience befriends Laura, she discovers a European way of life quite beyond her imagining: tea-dancing with Laura's doctor-father who treats both girls with loving gallantry; the reversal of the role of mother and daughter as Laura takes care of her mother, already well-advanced in the drug addiction that has been a byproduct of the family's flight from Nazi Germany.
"Secret Places" is an exact memoir of a turbulent, emotional period (with which almost everyone, man and woman, can identify) and an historical one, a wartime which brought with it a desperate urgency about growing up, separation and parting. And to its great credit, "Secret Places" is not a film in which emotion is recalled through a soft-focus golden haze, but with crisp, clear detail. (Peter MacDonald's photography is exceptional.)
Director Barron, who adapted this screenplay from the novel by Janice Elliott, is at her best with the frailties, hilarities and tremulous emotionality of the age. Each character at the school is clearly defined and memorable: curly-headed, white-blond giggly Nina (Cassie Stuart, a wildly good young actress), unchallenged as the school's "fast" girl, first to smoke, to wear a bra (need it or not), to plumb (with utterly predictable results) the perils of sex.
There is Rose, (Ann-Marie Gwatkin), the school's sole Irish girl, who scurries out of reach as visiting boys begin kissing the girls, squealing, "I'm Catholic, I'm Catholic!" And there is Miss Trott (the exceptional Sylvia Coleridge), head of the school, intuitive, but perhaps too quick in her conclusions about her girls.
The encroaching war makes Laura's position at the school more and more difficult, first as a newcomer, then as a hated German. (The distinction between German and Nazi is not one that is recognized by her schoolmates in wartime England.) It is made all the more ironic when her father is arrested by the British and kept in a series of camps until, like the German scientists used by the United States, he is allowed to work for the Allies.
These tensions, and an attraction to one of the boys from a nearby school come to take part in a production of "The Three Sisters," complicate the deep friendship that has grown between Laura and Patience.
To some, the film's almost-anecdotal quality is a distraction; it is life as defined by an accumulation of incident. But it's exactly that quality that makes "Secret Places" seem so real. Life--particularly at that age--is a jumble of incidents, not a clearly seen trajectory.
The film's other great realism comes from the tender and haunting performances of both Relin and MacGowran. Relin, clearly at home in three languages, has the quality of the very young Ingrid Bergman in her first Swedish films, a true, tawny, sensitive, goddess-in-the making. (And if her smile stirs memories you can't quite define, it should be mentioned that Mlle. Relin is the daughter of Maria Schell.)
MacGowran, tall and slim, with masses of deep auburn hair, looks like (but isn't) part of the Vanessa Redgrave dynasty of daughters. She combines a sweet vulnerability with awkward, emerging confidence and in exquisite duet with Relin, she seems to grow up right before our eyes. Their performances and the wealth of emotional detail that suffuses the film mark a first-rate debut for writer-director Barron, one of those gifted directors who have emerged from the technical side of film making.