IT’S not easy making romantic dramas out of life-threatening disease. For every decent effort, such as Joseph Gordon-Levitt in 50/50, there’s a Love Story or a million Nicholas Sparks adaptations, where the only options available to suffering audiences are either manipulative tear-jerkers (someone dies) or feel-good experiences (good lord, a cure!), accompanied by a message about embracing the moment and the people we love – a pretty audacious demand when the movie you are watching is squeezing the will to live right out of you.
The Fault In Our Stars (12A)
Director: Josh Boon
Running time: 125 minutes
Star rating: ***
The Fault In Our Stars is a young adult movie, which means that the teen heroes exhibit the sardonic world-wearyness of 40-year-olds with a gin habit, and their cancer is the rare strain that does not ravage looks. Hazel (Shailene Woodley) has had thyroid cancer since she was 13, and three years on her weakened lungs require a nose tube and an oxygen tank the size of a pilgrim’s burden. Augustus (Ansel Elgort) is a little older and toting a prosthetic leg after an aggressive bone cancer claimed the original.
Josh Boone’s adaptation of John Green’s novel has them meeting at a cancer support group, where they swap barbs and then bond over a book, despite Hazel’s reluctance to expose her heart to damage, after cancer has taken its toll on the rest of her.
At least initially, the film-makers are aware of the dangers of excessive sentimentality. The dialogue is liberally laced with one-liners and medical in-jokes. “Cancer perk” is what Hazel and Augustus call a side-benefit when their disease wins them especially considerate treatment. They manage to call in a few of these for a trip to Amsterdam to track down the author of the book that brought them together (Willem Dafoe). They also visit Anne Frank’s house, largely so the story can make a redundant point about teenage life cut short. It also furnishes the backdrop for the most weird and awkward kiss between two young people since Luke Skywalker snogged Princess Leia in Star Wars. When the strangers around them started applauding this, I had two thoughts: a) is this in the book (I’m afraid it is), and b) God knows what they would have done in public if they’d gone to the red light district instead.
The Fault In Our Stars is well acted, with Woodley bringing prickliness and a streak of perversity that stops her character from becoming Ali MacGraw in Love Story, while Elgort offers just the right measure of arrogance and vulnerability as her over-compensatingly cheerful beau. It’s also inventively shot and directed, yet what’s missing is honesty. It has been supplanted by artifice, and the campaign for your tears becomes increasingly heavy-handed as the film drags on, and you start noticing Boone’s reliance on music cues to saw on your emotional strings.
Maybe some will enjoy the two-hour running time as a sinus-clearing hankie-wringer which allows us to feel luxuriously sad that, despite being caringly parented by the likes of Laura Dern, and receiving the best medical care, some teenagers get life-threatening illnesses. However, The Fault In Our Stars doesn’t get any more profound than that, and in the end it can’t help but be pulled under by its own undertow of mawkishness. n
On general release from Thursday