Criminally Neglected: Possible Worlds

We review the Tilda Swinton thing, Possible Worlds.

Every summer I make a pilgrimage to the Stratford Festival in Ontario to see some great theatre. And when I'm there I always make a point of seeing at least one play that I know little or nothing about. I hope to be taken by surprise by something great, and usually I have my wish granted. This year's mystery play was Possible Worlds by John Mighton, which I had never even heard of, but which sounded exactly like something I would love. I was immediately spellbound; by the time the lights came back up after an intermissionless 90 minutes, this haunting, poetic, thought-provoking play had suddenly become one of my favorites. A deeply philosophical musing on the nature of identity, perception, reality, and love, Mighton's story is part mystery, part romance, part cerebral sci-fi, and all existential drama. I immediately wanted – needed – to see it again to further unpack its layers of meaning; so imagine my excitement when I found out that Mighton had adapted the play into a 2000 film starring that queen of strange, unique cinema, Tilda Swinton.

One trip to Amazon later, this excitement turned to disappointment as I discovered that Possible Worlds had inexplicably never been released in America, and the Canadian DVD (and even VHS tape) are very rare and expensive after several years out of print. There is a readily available, fairly inexpensive UK DVD, so the film is still easy enough to get your hands on... but only if you have a way to view region 2, PAL-format discs. Fortunately I do, and so I was soon able to confirm that the film, directed by Robert Lepage, is every bit as great as the play it was adapted from. Possible Worlds is a small masterpiece: a film that is as philosophically challenging as it is poetic, translated from stage to screen using ethereal, dream-like visuals that perfectly compliment John Mighton's cerebral dialogue.

"So, do you come to this 
alternate reality often?"
On the surface, the plot appears to have the trappings of a science fiction film, with elements of murder mystery. But while those descriptors aren't wholly wrong, Mighton uses those genre elements largely as a framework for what is at heart a narrative philosophy text. Mighton came to playwriting with a doctorate in mathematics and a master's degree in philosophy, and both of those credentials are highly evident in his story of how we perceive reality, ourselves, and each other. The main springboard for his script – as well as the source of its title – is the idea that there are an infinite number of possible worlds that exist for each choice we could have made differently, and each uncertain variable that could have occurred in our lives. Possible worlds in which even slightly different outcomes could cause our lives to move down different paths, making ripples along the way. The film's protagonist, George Barber (Tom McCamus), is a man with a very unique ability: he can see all of his possible worlds, and his consciousness spontaneously shifts between them, so that he is living all of them at once. The only constant in all his worlds is his love for Joyce (Tilda Swinton); but of course, she's a different person in every one of them, and their relationship has a different dynamic. And as the film begins, one of his possible selves has just been murdered, adding a more pressing mystery to the more abstract and existential ones.

The bulk of the story is told through conversations between George and Joyce; or rather, between various versions of George and Joyce as the movie continuously slips across its possible worlds. And while this does draw from the material's theatrical roots, the film never feels stagey. Instead, it takes on an intimate, thoughtful feel not unlike the conversation-driven style of Richard Linklater's Waking Life and Before... trilogy. The comparison to Waking Life is especially appropriate, given both the highly dream-like style of this film and the focus on philosophical concepts in the dialogue. As we get to know George and Joyce in all the possibilities of who they could be, these conversations assemble a larger picture of the complex facets of personality and relationships, and ultimately our experience of reality at large. Some of these concepts have been explored in other films like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Dark City, but the approach here is decidedly different, and a good deal more challenging. It isn't as accessible as those, as the slippery nature of George's shifts between worlds keeps us disoriented, and always questioning which reality we are seeing. It invites us to really think about what it all means, and it certainly benefits from multiple viewings. Viewers who are interested in these themes and up for a challenge will find Possible Worlds extremely compelling and rewarding.

"Before entering, please hang all
ShamWow on the wall."
While the script is faithful to Mighton's stage version almost to the letter, director Robert Lepage sets his film apart, and makes it strongly cinematic, with an excellent eye for poetic, ethereal visuals. With dream-like settings – mostly natural locations, and a few well-designed sets – and beautiful shot compositions, he does an excellent job of capturing material that definitely resisted translation to a medium as realistic as film. The text's visual motif of water, symbolizing the slippery fluidity of the reality/realities that we are experiencing, is carried throughout the film in several ways. Surreal scene transitions dissolve the world into a watery void, only to re-solidify in a different world. Scenes are set in strange and beautiful coastal locations, and stylized rain frequently pours down the windows of buildings. Lepage's world looks a lot like our real world, but subtle, dreamy details constantly remind us that it isn't quite.

Mighton himself approached Lepage about directing the film, and the two artists are a perfect match. Lepage, himself a playwrite and a director for stage as well as screen, clearly knows how to handle difficult material and navigate the differences between the two mediums. Tom McCamus and Tilda Swinton are both excellent as the two leads, navigating the subtle shifts in their characters across the different realities. McCamus channels the existential desperation and uncertainty of someone whose sense of self and reality is constantly in flux. And Swinton has an even more interesting task, as she effectively plays a bunch of slightly different, yet somehow the same, characters. Needless to say, she rises to the occasion with her usual excellence and otherworldly charisma.

When Possible Worlds was released in 2000, it got an impressive six Genie Award nominations, and won two of them. It took home the Genies for Best Art Direction/Production Design and Best Achievement in Editing, and was nominated for Best Picture, Best Cinematography, Best Director for Robert Lepage, and Best Leading Actress for Tilda Swinton. It was, by all measures, a highly successful independent film, and did well enough internationally that an indie film festival in Australia is named after it. So how on earth is it possible that it never found any distribution in America, or that it is so rare and long-out-of-print in Canada? I suppose that in 2000, before the success of similar films like Waking Life and Eternal Sunshine, distributors could have been skeptical of whether American audiences would have the patience or desire to watch such a challenging, decidedly non-mainstream film. But even so, with a star as marketable in indie circles as Tilda Swinton, surely some smaller company should have been interested in giving it an art-house run. The current North American paperback of the play still says “now a motion picture directed by Robert Lepage” on the cover... but now it only promotes a film that you can't even buy on this continent. Possible Worlds cries out for a special edition re-release, if anyone will listen. 

"You there! Do you know where 
they hang the ShamWow?
I could really use one."

While it is far too late for a major distributor to show any interest in it, it seems like a title that a Criterion Collection or a Kino Lorber or some company like that really should want. At least there is the inexpensive and readily available UK DVD, but it is far from the release that this film deserves; about the best you can call it is acceptable, and better than nothing. It presents the film in a 4x3 full-screen aspect ratio which is best described as ¾-open-matte; slightly side-cropped from its intended 16x9, but not so much that information gets lost. While it's not the theatrical aspect ratio, it's probably the best-case scenario for a 4x3 transfer, as close to Robert Lepage's shot compositions as possible. The picture quality is pretty good, and even in this format the film looks beautiful. It's not ideal, but definitely a good alternative for the outrageously expensive out-of-print Canadian disc, assuming you have a way to deal with the Region 2 PAL format.

Truly a criminally neglected film, Possible Worlds is a small masterpiece that demands rediscovery. For those who like their films challenging and philosophical, I cannot recommend it highly enough. This needs to be brought to the attention of a distributor who will show it the love that it deserves, so it can be widely appreciated beyond just multi-region import collectors. I want to live in the possible world where this film has a North American special edition.


- Christopher S. Jordan