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Jean (Brenda Blethyn), a bawdy and risqué comedienne still hoping to make it big, uses her sons Tim (Khan Chittenden) and Mark (Richard Wilson) to help her rehearse for shows. They inhabit a non-traditional household where chaos is the norm and Jean’s larger-than-life personality takes center stage. When Tim meets and falls for Jill (Emma Booth), his home becomes a combat zone as his mother fears the new girl will “break up” the unique family unit she’s tried so hard to keep together. In this hilarious, quirky and often touching tale, Tim must learn to manage the emotions of the women in his life without losing himself in the process. Directed by Cherie Nowlan.
 

 Introducing the Dwights

I love an original voice, truth and reality in films. There’s nothing like that delicious feeling of having experienced something in a film, and even better, learned something about the human condition without it being spelt out in a voice-over. I felt like that after Babel. It was transformative, not to mention a relief, that I hadn’t wasted $12 and three hours of my life.

So many times I’ve been desperate to see a movie at the cinema and, defeated by the lack of options, trudged home with a bunch of DVD classics to watch for the umpteenth time. I hang out to replicate the experience of watching films like Annie Hall, Muriel’s Wedding or The Graduate for the first time.

When I read Keith Thompson’s original screenplay for Introducing the Dwights, it seemed to have all the qualities of a film that I would want to see. The depiction of an awkward young man falling in love for the first time isn’t exactly new territory, but Keith’s preparedness to be so honest about male sexual anxiety made me blush and laugh hard.

There’s a particular line in the script that got me hooked. When the virginal Tim finally gets into bed with the sexy, wilful and very patient Jill, she asks him if he’d like her to take her “nighty” off. He says, “I’ll do it,” and turns the bedside light off. When she asks what he’s doing, he answers, “I’m turning the lighty off.” It said everything I needed to know about the character of Tim and, quite possibly, the writer. Keith confessed that he couldn’t have made up that hilarious clanger.

While the film is about Tim’s sexual coming of age, the heroine of the story is his hard-working, talented and once-famous ex-comedienne mother, Jean, played by the glorious Brenda Blethyn. Jean’s promising career comes to a “grinding halt” when her marriage to the one-hit-wonder singer, John Maitland, crumbles under the pressure of competing ambitions and looking after Tim’s brother, Mark, who is mildly retarded and has cerebral palsy.

Tim’s new-found love coincides with Jean relaunching her career on the Sydney club circuit and she’s reliant on her older son’s practical help as well as emotional support. She’s not ready for him to leave the nest so the stage is set for the battle of Tim’s affections.

The highlight of making the film was working with Brenda. I couldn’t think of anyone else who could play such a loveable but trying character with her emotional authenticity, empathy and wit. Her improvisational skills were something for all of us, particularly the young cast, to behold.

I’ll never forget watching Brenda’s Academy Award-nominated performance as the heartbreakingly funny Cynthia in Secrets & Lies for the first time. Being Australian, I was unaware of Brenda’s distinguished career on the English stage and television before Mike Leigh’s breakthrough masterpiece. Keith, however, had grown up in Dover, a stone’s throw from Brenda’s hometown of Ramsgate (south of London) and had admired her for many years. That she was Keith’s and my favourite English actress was a fortuitous coincidence.

Brenda’s performance in Secrets & Lies is especially remarkable when you factor in Mike Leigh’s method of arriving at a script. Brenda, like all the actors in Leigh’s films, improvised her character from scratch over a five-month rehearsal period.

Not surprisingly, Brenda was incredibly adept at writing her own stand-up material for Introducing the Dwights. She playfully tortured me on set with monologues made up in the middle of the night. Even when they were bad, they were funny. Like her handicapped son in the film, Mark, I’d be begging her to stop. And therein lies the only hazard of working with her—laughing. I was forever trying not to break down during a take, not least because Brenda never breaks down. I had to excuse myself from set at least once so I wouldn’t ruin a take.

If we weren’t laughing about something mischievous in the script, we were crying about the analogous situations in our own families. We both come from sprawling, extended working-class families who endured hardship with forbearance, laughter and love.

Love is the problem and the solution in Introducing the Dwights. When faced with no choice but to let go of her son, Jean focuses on what she has gained rather than lost by having Jill in Tim’s life.

As Henry David Thoreau sagely advised, “The only remedy for love is to love more.”