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Symbolism trumps drama in BBC movie

The culture machine has grown a little too eager. An era has barely passed us by before it gets pigeonholed, labeled, and memorialized in a VH1 special.

From the viewpoint of ''Gideon's Daughter," a BBC America movie, the turn of the millennium seems to have occurred eons ago, with the 1997 death of Princess Diana looking like a piece of ancient history. The days of 1997-2000 are portrayed as an already distinct and finished point in our psychic past. Way back then, as writer-director Stephen Poliakoff would have it, our souls were run to the ground by media conglomerates. Unlike now, of course.

Such easy and premature packaging of time periods dogs ''Gideon's Daughter," which premieres tonight at 8. The characters are burdened with the responsibility of signifying everything that Poliakoff believes was happening in England in the late 1990s, politically, socially, and individually. They're so weighted with historical import they seem flat and ponderous despite some solid acting. As in ''Friends and Crocodiles," a similar Poliakoff film that aired on BBCA last month, the potential for vital drama is given a back seat to forced symbolism. Even the extraordinary Miranda Richardson is reduced to playing the stereotypical harbinger of a new age.

The hero of ''Gideon's Daughter" is a PR guru who's written to be an emblem of the emptiness of the late 20th century. Gideon Warner (Bill Nighy) is such a publicity genius he could make the changing of seasons into star-studded red-carpet affairs. An expert at manipulating the temper of the masses, he provides image makeovers for actors and politicians alike. Early in the movie, he wins the contract to promote England's billion-dollar Millennium Dome, a pointless special-event site built to honor the changing century.

But Gideon feels increasingly barren, despite his professional success. He merely goes through the motions of romance with his superficial girlfriend, and he suppresses his pain about his daughter, a bitter beauty named Natasha (Emily Blunt) who's about to graduate and flee him. He wears a poker face to bluff his way through life. What he needs is a dose of warmth and hope, when in walks Richardson's Stella, a madcap woman who wears bright red in a gray world. She breathes life into Gideon and teaches him to embrace tackiness and quirky wisdom. Stella lost a son in a bicycle accident, and she frees Gideon to feel sadness about his daughter. She is the promise of the new millennium.

There's a nice, brief moment in the middle of this schematic setup when the plots seem to converge accidentally. The passing of Stella's son and the forthcoming absence of Gideon's daughter meld with the death of England's daughter, Princess Diana, to form an impassioned symphony of loss. Another memorable and effective scene has Natasha performing a haunting song about love and suicide in her school auditorium while Gideon gazes at her in despair.

Nighy is the only reason to watch, though. He brings a nuance to Gideon's spiritual death that many actors wouldn't bother with, the same kind of subtlety that made his turn in HBO's ''The Girl in the Café" so genuine. His expression remains still throughout ''Gideon's Daughter," and his vocal delivery verges on the robotic, yet he makes the stages of Gideon's inner conflict transparent. He manages to transcend the manufactured importance to which the rest of the movie succumbs.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at

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