Apartment Zero

November 15, 2011

Apartment zero is actually apartment 10, but the “1” has rubbed off the 10, leaving only the vacancy. This is appropriate, because the occupant of the apartment has no real life—a neurotic zero, he pieces together bits from the movies he loves and invents his own dry, isolated existence.

Apartment Zero is also the title of the most stylishly strange film of the year, directed by Martin Donovan and written by Donovan and David Koepp. The man in the apartment is Adrian (Colin Firth), who runs a revival moviehouse in Buenos Aires.

When we first see him, he is weeping at the ending of Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil, but this private moment is about the last emotion he will show; uptight and foppish, he keeps his distance from people (“There is only one rule: avoid the neighbors”). The only human company he has in his tidy apartment are the photographs of the silver screen legends he loves.

He’s forced to take a roommate, and the man who swaggers into his life is a vulgar American named Jack (Hart Bochner) with movie-star good looks. These two aren’t just an odd couple; they’re extremely peculiar. Eventually, the story takes a turn into darkness and paranoia, as Jack’s presence coincides with some violent events.

With the chemistry of his two actors and the exotic backdrop of Buenos Aires, director Donovan creates a sense of unease that nevertheless verges on giddiness, as though Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train had been adapted by David Lynch on a particularly playful day.

The layers of movie trivia, the baroque supporting cast, the tremors of Argentine political unrest, all make for a perversely intoxicating nightmare. The film seems to move in dream time, too, a weird, off-rhythm—ungainly, perhaps, but original. Donovan is a talent to watch.

So is Colin Firth, the English actor who gives Adrian the solicitous sweetness of Anthony Perkins in Psycho. Firth visited Seattle for interviews last week, as this engagement is the film’s premiere American run.

Firth appeared as the radicalized student in Another Country and in the unjustly neglected A Month in the Country. He appears set for greater things, as he will soon star in Milos Forman’s new version of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, called Valmont.

Firth says he enjoyed playing the unhealthy Adrian: “I like playing screwed-up, paranoid, neurotic people,” he says. “They’re fun. The more problems the character has, psychologically, the more there is to work with. I also find it quite relaxing, because if everyting goes into that, you feel like you’ve got no problems of your own.”

He noted the movie’s odd construction. “I see the flaws that I see in the movie. But I think that it triumphs on its own terms.”

The film brilliantly captures a sense of unease, which seems to come from the exoticism of the setting, a tension that pervades the air like the Argentine tango music of the soundtrack. Firth suggests that he always felt uncomfortable in Buenos Aires, adding, “I come away from watching the film with the same distaste, unease, slight headache, nervousness, that I felt when I was there.”

First published in the Herald, September 1989

Nice fellow, that Colin Firth—self-deprecating, casual, profane. I wonder what ever happened to him. Apartment Zero dates from just about the end of the era when an independent film could rely on Seattle as a place to get launched; that stuff isn’t happening anymore. The lavishness of my praise for this movie didn’t quite hold up on a second viewing, as I recall, but it’s a good film, and Donovan (whose “talent to watch” was well into a career at this point) and Koepp (his first screen credit) both brought their own stuff to an interesting project.

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Another Country

April 15, 2011

The other country referred to in the title of Another Country is both a real and an imagined place. The story is a fictionalized version of the school days of Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, who spilled British secrets to the Soviet Union into the 1950s, and who relocated to Moscow when the scandal broke. So in one way, the title nods to their eventual displacement.

But in a more important way, the other country that Burgess and Maclean (they’re called Guy Bennett and Tommy Judd in the movie) inhabit is the land of outsiders. Both are already living in another country during their school days, because they each have a passion that forces their isolation.

Bennett (Rupert Everett) is homosexual, which in itself is not uncommon at this school. Many of the boys are engaging in clandestine sexual activity, but with the attitude that they’re going to shut up about it, and pass through the phase eventually. Bennett, however, doesn’t see it as a phase; and he has a tendency to sit in windowsills, strike soulful poses, and declare his love for the boy who lives across the courtyard (Cary Elwes)—to anyone who will listen.

His hurtful flamboyance—well played by Everett—gets him into inevitable trouble. But he has the bemused sympathy of Judd (Colin Firth), who is an outsider himself because of his devotion to Marxism, and his oft-stated contempt for the bourgeois system. And he and Bennett share the habit of talking when they should probably keep quiet.

The movie is all about these formative school years, so don’t expect a spy yarn. The setting becomes a wee bit static (the movie was adapted by Julian Mitchell from his stage pay), but not annoyingly so.

The only real problem is that the movie’s main idea—that Bennett is politicized by the failure of the system to accommodate his social crisis—is a bit obviously stated. There’s not too much under the surface, and you get the impression that the author had his single theme to communicate, which he does single-mindedly.

But the film saves itself through the grace of the production design, the fine form of the actors (among other things, it’s a funny movie), and the crucial flashback structure that Mitchell has given the story.

Another Country is framed by brief sequences of an aging Bennett being interviewed in Moscow in the present. This device, as we see Bennett looking rather lost among the cold surroundings of Soviet life, and wistfully missing his beloved cricket matches, adds a layer of ruefulness that the film would not otherwise have.

We learn that Judd died fighting in the Spanish Civil War, which means he was spared the spectacle of his high hopes coming to naught in the Soviet Union. Poor Bennett is left to face the bittersweet legacy of their school years in the manner to which he is accustomed—alone.

First published in the Herald, June 18, 1984

Bennett is closer to Burgess than the film’s Judd is to any literal model; I think Judd is more of a composite of the Cambridge spies-to-be, rather than a straight take on Maclean. I mighty also note, pace my final paragraph, that the fictional Judd could easily have become disillusioned in the great Soviet experiment by the time of the Spanish Civil War. In any case, the story of the Cambridge spies is inexhaustible; for a companion piece, the Alan Bennett-scripted, John Schlesinger-directed An Englishman Abroad is a real gem, with a splendid performance by Alan Bates as Burgess. Another Country was much beloved in Seattle at the time, being the kind of movie that is much loved in Seattle.