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19 June 2014updated 14 Sep 2021 3:22pm

Love in a time of cancer: The Fault in Our Stars

An unconventional romance between two young cancer patients is not as hard-hitting as it could be. 

By Ryan Gilbey

The Fault in Our Stars (12A)
dir: Josh Boone

 

The literary phenomenon of the YA (young adult) novel continues to spill profitably into the multiplexes even now that the sun has set on Twilight. But it’s no reflection on the quality of The Fault in Our Stars, the latest film version of a YA sensation, to say that its chances of spawning a franchise are negligible. As the 16-year-old Hazel (Shailene Woodley) warns us from the off, this isn’t the happily-ever-after version of life dished up by romantic novels and movies. This, she says, is the truth.

The small trolley that Hazel wheels behind her doesn’t contain make-up; the transparent tube clipped to her nostrils isn’t the latest unfathomable teen affectation. She has thyroid cancer. Fearing she is depressed, her parents sign her up for a support group. It is here that she meets Augustus (Ansel Elgort), who is in remission after losing half of one leg to osteosarcoma. In another context, Augustus’s courtship of Hazel, which involves staring intently at her even once she has begun squirming visibly, then luring her to his basement and firing off discomfiting questions, would form the basis for a run-of-the-mill serial-killer movie. That’s surely the best-case scenario for any suitor who delivers with sincerity phrases such as “Welcome to my humble abode” and “I enjoy looking at beautiful people.”

That the romantic content of the movie is not jeopardised seriously by our fears that Hazel will end up as a fetching throw in Augustus’s cellar is down to the delicate lead performances. Woodley is nobody’s victim. She is small and flinty, rather like something that might get stuck in your shoe. Her Bambi-brown eyes are offset interestingly by an abrasiveness and intelligence unusual for a young star. It makes a neat contrast with Elgort. Although his name is redolent of a Bond villain, he is planed and buffed, squishy and smooth: a handsome marshmallow.

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Any faults the film has lie not in its stars. Despite Hazel’s announcement that her story will not be sugar-coated, there is a stock visual vocabulary to which the director, Josh Boone, resorts when the going threatens to get tough. Emergency dashes to hospital are rendered in hand-held slow-motion, with arbitrary lapses into the out-of-focus for extra implied realism. Goo is restricted to one infected wound and some drool, and the actors never lose their looks. Before Hazel and Augustus sleep together, he shows her his abbreviated leg. At the risk of sounding like an amputee fetishist, would it have been too much for us to see her caress it? No matter how emotionally bracing the film gets, there’s a sense that punches are being pulled visually.

Even within the unorthodox framework of a love story between two cancer patients, certain reassurances are still given. Augustus turns out to be a virgin – no one will sleep with him because of his physical shortcoming. (Then again, maybe they all turn on their heels when they hear that “humble abode” stuff.) It’s a bummer about the cancer but at least Hazel has bagged herself a hot virgin. She need never know the hell of flicking jealously through Facebook snaps of his ex-girlfriends. Or future ones, for that matter.

All she has to do is teach him some decorum. On a trip to Amsterdam to meet her favourite novelist (a grizzled cameo from Willem Dafoe), the couple stop off at the Anne Frank House, where Augustus takes it upon himself to lay a tongue sandwich on his beloved. Incredibly the fellow museum-goers applaud en masse. Perhaps they’ve simply mistaken this exhibitionism for a knowing homage to the Seinfeld episode in which Jerry is caught making out during Schindler’s List.