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.

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Shy People

December 7, 2012

shypeopleWhen I was driving around in the bayou country of southern Louisiana last year, I happened to tune into a radio talk show discussing the subject of movies filmed in the state.

The commentators spoke with some weariness and bemusement about the way that movies set in rural Louisiana always portray the locals as a bunch of inbred crazies, performing weird rituals in the swamps and attacking stray outsiders (as in Southern Comfort, for instance).

I don’t imagine these commentators will be too thrilled with Shy People, which is another film about some outsiders finding a strange new universe in the bayou.

But, to be fair to filmmaker Andrei Konchalovsky (Runaway Train), Shy People goes to some lengths to establish a sympathy for the backwoods people, even if they ultimately come off as flaky.

It’s a culture-clash movie, about a New York writer, Diana (Jill Clayburgh), who takes her teenage daughter (Martha Plimpton) to Louisiana in search of a story. She’s got relatives there, but she’s never met them.

The bayou family is now ruled by her distant cousin, Ruth (Barbara Hershey, winner of the best actress prize at the ’97 Cannes Film Festival for this performance), who is raising three sons in a dilapidated house, far away from the reach of civilization.

One son is a trapper (Don Swayze), one is retarded, and the other is locked in the tool shed for an unnamed offense. Her older boy (Merritt Butrick) has moved into town, where he runs the Pussycat Lounge; he’s not mentioned in the family anymore.

Konchalovsky is interested in contrasting these two different mothers, and in showing the changes they bring on each other.

Diana is all big-city pose, her gold bracelets clanking as she confronts a crisis with, “I’m from Cosmopolitan magazine! Don’t you know what that means?”

Ruth remains bound to the swamp, insisting with mysterious belief that her late, larger-than-life husband is still alive out there, somewhere.

The climax of this clash of lifestyles comes when the two women leave the house to go into town, and the daughter teases the boys into a lather. She also gives them a sniff of cocaine, and soon they’re setting free the goats and turning loose the chickens, and generally behaving like characters in some cautionary reefer madness movie.

As Konchalovsky tells the story, he ladles on a heavy dose of social criticism. For all their oddities, he sides with the natural life of the country people, as opposed to the neuroses of the city folk.

He’ll stop the show to focus on a can of Bud plunking into the bayou from the highway above, in slow motion yet, and he’s eager to show the decadence of civilization.

A great deal of this becomes simple-minded to the point of dopiness. But if Konchalovsky is bald about his ideas, you can’t deny this director’s powerful visual sense.

Konchalovsky finds some definitively spooky sights in that swampy backwater; the gray-green mists seem to hide a bounty of secrets. This is the forest primeval, indeed.

First published in the Herald, May 1988

Before we go elevating Andrei Konchalovsky (the brother of Nikita Mikhalkov) to the Powerful Visual Sense club, let us note that Shy People was photographed by Chris Menges, who knew something about all that. Konchalovsky went to school with Tarkovsky. The slo-mo on the beer can sort of sums up the director’s approach.