If Burning Secret exists for any reason, it is to give a splendid role to Klaus Maria Brandauer, the marvelous actor who made a great splash in the international cinema with his bravura performance in Mephisto and who more recently played Meryl Streep’s husband in Out of Africa.
Brandauer seems to prefer his stage work in Vienna, for he doesn’t make many films. But he dominates Burning Secret, in which he has a plum role as a wealthy and titled man of mystery.
Brandauer plays a baron, vacationing at continental sanitorium in the winter of 1919. A new arrival catches his eye; a married American woman (Faye Dunaway) and her young son (David Eberts), who are at the resort because of the boy’s asthma.
The baron quickly strikes up a friendship with the child, but it gradually becomes obvious that his interest lies in the mother. And the lady, it further develops, is not averse to the attention; her husband (Ian Richardson) is back in Vienna shuffling papers.
As the adults gravitate toward one another, the boy feels betrayed. In the movie’s most amusing scene, Brandauer and Dunaway propose leaving the kid alone at a skating pond while they go off to town alone. The boy insists on coming along. But surely, his mother says, you would be bored at the art gallery. “I love paintings,” he says stubbornly. “Seventeenth century Bavarian landscapes?” asks the baron. The kid blanks out for a moment, then recovers: “They’re my favorite.”
The film, written and directed by Andrew Birkin, is told from the child’s point of view. This allows fur the slow unfolding of the baron’s motives, as well as a keen sense of the boy’s hurt.
Not a lot happens in the film and Birkin’s direction is a bit flaccid, so the characters tend to explain a lot in conversation. The baron is always saying things such as, “To consummate love is to make it mortal,” and otherwise stating the movie’s ideas. Only because Brandauer’s performance is so dextrous, full of cat-like movement and curious smiles, does the movie keep from being completely static. Even so, it’s awfully slow going.
The script is based on a story by Austrian writer Stefan Zweig, whose work also provided the basis for one of Hollywood’s most exquisite films, the 1948 Letter From an Unknown Woman. That movie breathed glowing life into the same themes that are present here, the sense of romantic tragedy and love unfulfilled. Burning Secret manages to smolder only occasionally.
First published in the Herald, December 1988
No recollection of this one, but Brandauer makes anything worth a look. Birkin must be an interesting person; along with being Jane Birkin’s brother, he wrote on some interesting projects, was an assistant to Stanley Kubrick, and directed the very interesting Ian McEwan adaptation, The Cement Garden. And oh, look: turns out Kubrick developed his own adaptation of Burning Secret in the 1950s.