The basic plot of Words and Pictures isn't anything new. A washed-up great — in this case — writer is wasting away at a ritzy boarding school until he finds someone to save him. Hell, the film even uses "O Captain! My Captain!," the famous opener from the Walt Whitman poem about Abraham Lincoln that got good play in Dead Poets Society, albeit this time as a jocular form of connection between an embattled instructor and a class clown. And although the reuse doesn't carry as much emotional gravitas as it did in Peter Weir's 1989 boarding school saga, Words and Pictures does bear fruit. It just comes from different stems, most notably the crisp performances by its able leads and an intermittently sharp script that clearly had some thought put into it.
The mechanics, however, are fairly by-the-numbers. Jack Marcus (Clive Owen), a.k.a. Mr. Mark, is a has-been literary star who's fallen into drink and a dearth of creative muster, and thus milks an English teaching gig at an elite prep school in Maine to keep his toe in the water. He's also in a bit of hot water with the school's administration because of a drunken incident at the local fine-dining establishment and his slack, unconventional classroom demeanor, which only sits well with his restless students. Jack's pretty much at the tipping point; the tired-of-it-all board has him up for review, and it doesn't help that the literary magazine he oversees has become a lackluster money pit.
Enter Dina Delesanto (the ever alluring Juliette Binoche), a New York artist with a capital A. She's shown in SoHo and built a reputation that has earned her the moniker "the Icicle." Why not "the Ice Queen" or "Frigid Fresco," or something more to the point? I'm not sure, but it does aptly illuminate the oft-uninspired eddies that permeate Gerald Dipego's script. Dina arrives on campus one day to teach honors art and sparks fly. Like Jack, her artistic star has faded. Not from internal demons mind you, but by the ravages of rheumatoid arthritis that has gravely impaired the use of her hands and weight-bearing joints.
In short, they're both damaged goods and natural combatants driven by frustration, ego, and the ghosts of the past. They're also pretty good teachers too, or so the rainbow-colored spectrum of inspired kids would indicate. The "art war" gets underway when Jack engages Dina in his faculty lounge game of multisyllabic one-upmanship (I name a word with six syllables, can you come up with one with seven or more?). Dina's more sport than most other faculty who view the game as an annoying means for Jack to stroke his id. The actual call to arms comes when Dina openly dismisses words as lies and proclaims pictures truth.
As the story builds, the simmering back and forth manifests itself into something bigger and becomes embraced by the school as a whole as an extracurricular exercise to explore, debate, and deepen erudition. The fate of the magazine and Jack hang in the balance, but that's mostly chatter as there are deeper currents flowing. Jack can't write and can't connect with his son who goes to a nearby college. On the other side, Dina struggles with pills and physical barriers that prevent her from painting (all of Dina's art in the film are done by Binoche who's had a long-standing passion for paint on canvas). The two sense each other's pain and exploit it, but also quietly begin to afford each other slivers of compassion and respect. It's in these somber moments of realization and revelation that Words and Pictures begins to find its pulse and heart.
Depigo, who's credits include Message in a Bottle and Phenomenon, gives Owens and Binoche some superbly crafted lines, especially Owen who delivers them with all the rancor and vehemence of a young Richard Burton. Owen too nails the drunken slur, making it visceral and heartfelt without being hyperbolic as it might otherwise have been played. Unfortunately for Binoche, Depigo and director Fred Schepisi opt to illustrate Dina's ordeal through a permanent scowl, angry huffs, and knee-locked stumbles when betrayed by her cane. It doesn't quite mesh with the other side of Dina that Binoche warmly brings to the screen; the Dina who challenges her students, the Dina who won't quit, and the Dina who is afraid to let someone in.
Things ultimately veer towards the romantic, and pleasingly, it's the one aspect of the film that unfurls free of convention and cliche. The care and craft wrapped around it is so diligent and nuanced, it makes the other threads — like the pushy preppy (Adam DiMarco) who tosses politically incorrect lines at the cute, but shy Asian girl (Valerie Tian) and Jack's impropriety with the head of the board (Amy Brennan) — feel shoehorned, forced, and distracting. Schepisi, who's been in the game a long time (Roxanne and A Cry in the Dark), knows when to let his actors run with it. It's a lesson well learned and also the film's saving grace. Owens and Binoche do what they must to rise above the hokum and put on an acting clinic.