It’s official: Emily Watson is eminently capable of playing ordinary, well-adjusted characters, too. Metroland— shot after Breaking the Waves but before her cello-mad performance in Hilary and Jackie— is an unflashy tale of memory and desire in suburban London. The memories and desires belong to the story’s hero, Chris (Christian Bale), who craves rebellion and escape but ends up nine-to-fiving it back in his boring old hometown.

Metroland, based on the novel by Julian Barnes, moves back and forth through time from 1963, when Chris is a wisecracking schoolboy, to 1968, which finds him in Paris, living la vie bohème as a struggling photographer, to the late 1970s, when he’s returned home to marriage, fatherhood, and a boring but secure job in advertising. The catalyst for Chris’s soul-searching, at each stage in his life, is the appearance of Toni (Lee Ross), a drifter and malcontent who goads him into taking risks and tossing aside bourgeois comforts. Bale conveys the torments of all three stages of British lad-hood, but Ross has a more difficult job— Toni is supposed to be a charismatic rebel, but he’s mainly irritating and cruel. As is typical of stories of young men’s crises, the women have it all figured out and must wait for their men to catch up. Watson, as Chris’s wife, here has an endearingly tart sense of humor that masks a soulful sadness.

To convey the quotidian life, director Philip Saville seems to have chosen the grayest, dullest settings in all of England; even the bed linens appear worn out and dirty. The whole movie has an uncomfortable intimacy, and the close-ups are lit as unforgivingly as an old Polaroid. (Ross’s face, in particular, seems to be shot in terrifying Pore-O-Rama.) The message seems to be: you can go home again, but Jesus, dim the lights.