Defense of the Realm and Duet for One

February 7, 2013

dfenseofrealmDefense of the Realm has the breeding and the instincts of a classic paranoid thriller, along the lines of a Richard Condon novel or an Alan Pakula film. In many ways it resembles Pakula’s All the President’s Men, for this is also a story of an increasingly nasty government cover-up, unraveled by a relentless newspaper reporter.

This time, however, the reporter (Gabriel Byrne) is no white knight. He’s as sleazy as his Fleet Street counterparts when a juicy political scandal breaks, and every bit as willing to gain information in under-handed ways. Actually, that’s what makes Defense of the Realm interesting, above and beyond its status as a ripping yarn; here, the getting of the story provides the reporter with some measure of redemption.

The scandal involves a teddibly important member of Parliament (Ian Bannen) caught sharing the same call girl as a KGB agent. (Not at the same time—Martin Stellman’s sctript isn’t quite as wild as an actual British political scandal.)

Trapped in the middle is an old-guard reporter (the always-admirable Denholm Elliott), who’s also an old friend of the disgraced man. Elliott hints darkly to Byrne that the whole thing is a frame-up, and that evidence is forthcoming that will implicate even bigger higher-ups.

Within a few hours, Elliott is dead—that happens when you hint darkly in stories such as these—and Byrne is compelled to follow the thing through, aided by a secretary (Greta Scacchi) of the disgraced man.

Even when you can’t figure out precisely what’s going on, and that happened to me with uncomfortable regularity, the film does move forward nimbly. Director David Drury, another discovery of that savior of the British cinema, David Puttnam, has an exceptionally sharp eye and a brooding sense of atmosphere. The crucial thing he doesn’t quite achieve is to make the Byrne and Scacchi characters into fleshy creatures. They remain mostly props in the service of this well-tooled movie.

Duet for One was released in Los Angeles late last year, in hopes of picking up an Academy Award nomination for Julie Andrews. Didn’t work, so Cannon Films seems to be dumping the movie, which is adapted from Tom Kempinski’s stage success.

It’s a bravura role, all right, the sort that usually gets an automatic nomination. Andrews plays a world-famous concert violinist stricken with multiple sclerosis. The film charts her downslide, through retirement, anger, and a suicide attempt, and the toll on the people around her: conductor husband (Alan Bates), psychoanalyst (Max von Sydow), musical protégé (Rupert Everett).

It’s a weird movie. Much of it plays as soap opera, redeemed by some of Andrews’ gutsy moves. Eventually the presence of director Andrei Konchalovsky (Runaway Train) takes over, and a heavy kind of Russian obscurity seeps in.

First published in the Herald, March 14, 1987

Surely Defense of the Realm has a cult following. Drury made a Hollywood misfire (Split Decisions) and then went into the world of British television, where he has thrived.