Film/Video/TV Annotations


Almost Strangers


MediumTV Program
KeywordsAging, Alcoholism, Family Relationships, Grief, Illness and the Family, Infertility, Memory, Mental Illness, Narrative as Method, Parenthood, Stroke, Time
SummaryThis three-part BBC television miniseries centers on the large weekend reunion of a prosperous Anglo-Jewish family at a luxurious West End hotel.  Various family members discover one another and uncover family stories and secrets that reorient them in their lives.  Writer-Director Stephen Poliakoff does not adhere to a conventional story structure, and this wandering tale is full of unexpected and rewarding narrative dips and turns.
 
Two family clusters are followed most closely in the story, although we are given glimpses, through flashback, of other compelling characters’ intricate wartime histories.   One branch of the family is made up of Daniel (Matthew Macfadyen) and his parents, Raymond and Esther Symon (Michael Gambon and Jill Baker) who have grown distant from the larger family circle following a well-intentioned but failed business venture that cost Raymond his share of the family wealth.  Daniel, intrigued by his glamorous relatives, is drawn more and more deeply into a relationship with his seductive and mysterious cousin Rebecca (Claire Skinner) and her dashing brother Charles (Toby Stephens).  In the course of the weekend, crusty but endearing Raymond suffers a minor stroke, and we learn of the recent death of Rebecca and Charles’ eldest brother following his descent into mental illness.

The most meaningful connections, however, belong to the past, and are brought to light in stages, effectively engaging our curiosity.  The stories behind two captivating photographs, one of Raymond’s father dancing fancifully and uncharacteristically on a lawn, and one of Daniel at age three, unaccountably dressed as an Italian Prince, are eventually uncovered to reveal a secret history that holds quite different meanings for Daniel and his father. 
 
CommentaryThe idea for Almost Strangers came to Poliakoff when he attended his own family reunion in 1996.  Through his characters he ruminates on the nature of family, on genetic inheritance, the random resurfacing of traits, as well as the arbitrariness of blood relationships.  Most compellingly, he engages the role of story and of secrets in the family, and their expanding repercussions.  As revelations occur, as stories are unearthed, we watch characters draw new meanings and discover new aspects of themselves through encounters with their own unknown pasts.  Unlike many such tales of secrets revealed, however, Poliakoff presents revelation as contingent, part of a life-process, by no means offering resolution, closure or identity-conclusions.

Medical or illness content does not dominate this narrative, although the challenges of coping with mental illness in a family member are explored, or rather, touched on, as is the power of story to renew the spirits of Raymond following his stroke.
DirectorStephen Poliakoff
Leading ActorsMichael Gambon, Matthew Macfadyen
StudioBBC
Year2001
Color/BWColor
Running Time238 minutes
Video SourceBBC
Alternate SourceColor
MiscellaneousThis series aired on BBC television in the United Kingdom as Perfect Strangers. The title was changed to Almost Strangers for the American release to avoid confusion with an American Sitcom of the same name.
Annotated by Spiegel, Maura
Date of Entry 10/25/09