When David Mamet made the transition from plays to films, he took a body of work with him that included, among others, Oleanna. Long-time collaborator William H. Macy performed in the original stage play, but first timer Debra Eisenstadt got the part thanks to an open audition. Macy, as ever, excels in this type of role - a precisely spoken and increasingly desperate little man - but at times Eisenstadt is less convincing as Carol.
Oleanna, like Glengarry Glen Ross, is driven by clever dialogue and characters. This is not a film with any action or intrigue to speak of, and there are only two speaking parts. Within this tight framework Mamet constructs an elaborate and tooth-grindingly emotive scenario.
Carol, a student at a prestigious university, goes to see her professor John, about a piece of work she has failed. John tries to justify why he gave her a poor grade, and eventually descends into a lecture about his theory of education and his book. In so doing, he essentially digs his own grave, for his argument centres on the irrelevance of higher education when it's expected and attained by so many rather than by an elite. This argument does not sit well with Carol who feels that he is making light of her sacrifices to get to University, and dismissing the fact that her life will be shaped in so many ways by his failing her.
What follows is a remarkably divisive series of confrontations as Carol moves first from accusing John of elitism, to charging him with sexual harrassment. Incredibly, she has either twisted or misconstrued everything that has taken place in their private meetings, and to hear the list of 'evidence' read back to John is one of the films greatest moments as lines we had previously barely noticed are suddenly thrown back at us smeared in poison. The sentence "I want to help you because I like you" can take on such a different meaning depending on how one appraises it.
Things get more heated as the film progresses, and eventually it becomes impossible to opt for one character over the other. As the film's strapline puts it - "Whichever side you choose, you're wrong" since both have some validity, as well as some insanity.
In production, Mamet reportedly had his actors rehearse with a metronome present in order to perfect the strange tempo with which the lines are delivered. At first it's quite strange and feels rather false, but in time the actors almost seem to grow into the method and the performances become much stronger, especially from Eisenstadt who is wonderful in the latter stages of the film.
Oleanna is clearly a play making a transition to film, and whilst it's competently shot, it never fills the screen or excites the viewer visually. However, the focus is on the dialogue which is excellent, and on the relationship between the two leads. Watch this film, but be prepared for frustration. Many people find the character of Carol far easier to hate than that of John, but the film must be considered with an open mind. Hear both their arguments and realise that this was just a collision of worlds that could not be prevented.