By John H. Foote


In 1982 I was an acting student more interested in directing than acting, and more interested in film criticism than anything else. On a sleepy Sunday afternoon, I went to see the film alone, as I often did, and sat in the theatre quietly transfixed by the beauty and absolute purity of the performances.

The film opens with George (Albert Finney) sobbing into his hands in his office, in his beautiful home he shares with his wife Faith (Diane Keaton) and their rambunctious daughters. The noise in the house drowns out his sobbing, and when finished he dries his eyes and goes to his wife. They drive together into the city where he is being given an award for his latest book. They seem perfectly normal, strained perhaps, but at the end of a long day, driving away from the chaos of their home, strained silence might have been just the ticket.

We learn the tears are due to the fact he is going to break up their family, that he is having an affair with a much younger woman, portrayed with callous recklessness by Karen Allen. When he tells his wife, it tears her guts out, devastates her as she thought their marriage was on good footing. She admits she gets distracted with their energetic kids, but did that drive him away?

Who knows?

It seems they grew tired of each other and he sought sexual companionship elsewhere.

Her heart in shreds, Faith tries desperately to put her life together, taking care of the kids, particularly Sherry (Dana Hill) the eldest and closest to George, she too is gutted by the break up. Despite Faith’s encouragement Sherry will have nothing to do with her father, which frustrates George leading to rage. In the middle is Faith. She hires a contractor to build a tennis court and the two begin an intense relationship. Frank (Peter Weller) is completely unlike her husband, and sexually feeds her needs, but what about her intellect? Faith is every bit the intellect her husband was, can she really be happy with a contractor?

The cracks in George’s affair begin to show when it becomes clear Sandy (Allen) does not care for the kids and makes it very clear to George if he is not up to taking care of her, she will find another who is. Is it her carelessness with his heart that drives him back to Faith that night, crashing a party, destroying the tennis court, pitifully reaching for his wife once beaten, who takes his bloodied hand.

Diane Keaton was best known for her superb performances in Annie Hall (1977), Looking for Mr. Goodbar (1977) and Manhattan (1979), and at the time of this film’s release she was brilliant in Reds (1981). As Faith, she quietly, and with heartbreaking purity gives the performance of her career. Sitting in a tub, puffing on a joint, she begins to sing the Beatles tune “If I Fell” her voice aching with hurt, with pain she never fathomed having to experience. So great is her emotional agony, it seems to spill off the screen into our living space. And when she turns a corner, thinking she has found happiness, there is George, always George is there. She realizes they are forever connected, not just by their noisy brood, but by a deep love. Her pain gives her a pinched quality that when Gone frees her, allows joy to be felt, which she shares with us.

Finney is remarkable as George, launching into a four year period in which he was one of the finest actors of his generation. After exploding into film in the sixties during the neo-British cinema, he bobbed in and out of film through the seventies. With Shoot the Moon, the actor found a role that challenged him, that caused audiences to despise him, then feel for him. The rage he feels at Sherry erupts in violence that shames him, yet even his daughter knows it was love that drove him to spank the girl. It is a complicated, troubling performance beautifully acted by Finney. Both he an Keaton deserved Oscar nominations but the film was buried in early year releases. Finney would go on to nominations for his magnificent Sir in The Dresser (1983) and as the angry drunk in John Huston’s superb Under the Volcano (1984).

Karen Allen is outstanding as the flighty Sandy, shallow, living for the moment, to be the centre of attention. And the late Dana Hill, who died too young, outstanding as the brooding Sherry, quietly raging over her the breakup, struggling to understand the adult world before ready to do so.

The film was directed by British filmmaker Alan Parker, who had ended the seventies and started the eighties with a trio of hits, Bugsy Malone (1977), Midnight Express (1978), and Fame (1980) the explosive musical that became a massive hit. In the years after Shoot the Moon, without question his, film, he directed Mississippi Burning (1988) and Evita (1996) far better than it was given credit for being.

There have been great films about the pain of divorce, An Unmarried Woman (1978), Kramer vs. Kramer (1979), even the comedy Mrs. Doubtfire (1993), but I am not sure any of them captured the raw, visceral pain, like an open wound with salt casually tossed upon it, that this film does. The tearing apart of the family unit is a frightening for a child, but also for adults who are forced to face themselves, naked, vulnerable, all their flaws out for all to see. Their home hides what is really happening behind those walls, a divorce tears those walls down for all to see.

Nothing he ever directed was as honest or as powerful as Shoot the Moon which brims with life and the stings of truth. Acted with blistering honesty and power, directed and written with clarity and truth, it is one of the cinema’s great works. A true buried treasure.

1 Comment

  • gerard
    On January 2, 2019 11:37 am 0Likes

    Hint on film criticism 101: Don’t tell the entire story, or even part of it.
    The art of criticism is being able to express how you feel about a film, in detail,
    without telling the story.

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