New Movies -
Old Movies -
The Quiet American (Phillip Noyce) 2002 / Rabbit-Proof Fence (Phillip Noyce) 2002
In what seems to be a deliberate attempt to distance himself from the Hollywood action films that have come to define his career, Australian filmmaker Phillip Noyce has directed two artier, less sensationalistic features, that happen to be opening in America within a week of each other. Unfortunately, both films fail precisely because Noyce attempts to apply the sort of directorial shorthand that works best in a mindless action movie onto a story that begs for a more studied approach. The Quiet American, the first of the two films to come out, is an adaptation of Graham Green’s novel. Workmanlike where it should be sensual, it fails to capture the romantic obsessions that dominate Greene's work as well as The End of the Affair and fails to match the expressionistic intrigue of The Third Man. More than anything, it feels like Peter Weir’s The Year of Living Dangerously, which is to say it flirts with provocative material, but ends up being mostly superficial. Symbols from the novel are present here and they should work, but they don't feel at all organic because Noyce fouls up the context.
Unfortunately, the performances in The Quiet American don't feel organic either, and while the heavily plot-driven film never really grows dull, sometimes I wished it would so the environments might have a chance to feel a bit more lived in. What's the point of an exotic setting in a movie about sexual obsession if nothing is allowed to become a fetish object? Though the film’s cinematographer is frequent Wong Kar-Wai collaborator Christopher Doyle, it has none of the intoxicating mood of Wong’s movies. Instead of allowing the audience a moment or two to appreciate the way that Vietnam offers temptation - be it opium, women, or power - to those who aren’t acquainted with its mysteries, the film rushes along with a decent, but not revelatory, espionage plot. This focus, which comes at the expense of fleshing out Michael Caine’s character in any meaningful way, suggests that Noyce’s attraction to this material was pretty similar to his decision to adapt any of the Tom Clancy thrillers. As soon as Noyce establishes Greene’s cynicism with the opening narration, he discards it, and begins working toward a far less interesting emotion: political outrage.
Political outrage seems to be the impetus for Rabbit-Proof Fence, Noyce’s second, and less successful, film to come out this year. Set in Australia in 1931, the film attempts to dramatize the plight of the “stolen generations” of Aboriginal children who were seized by the Australian government. What the film has in good intentions it loses with its execution, however. The strict focus of the film isn’t on the reasons that the laws were instituted that allowed this tragedy to occur repeatedly or the attitudes that lead to the decision to repeal it. Instead, it follows three of the children, Homeward Bound-style, as they trudge across the Island Continent in a 1,500 mile, 9-week long journey. Cinematographer Doyle has a chance to do better work here thanks to the scenery, but it can’t compare to the otherworldliness of films such as Nicholas Roeg’s superior Walkabout. Whenever Rabbit does attempt to create a villain, such as it does with Kenneth Branagh’s impossibly white monster Mr. Neville, it overplays its hand by encouraging modern audiences to judge them by today’s standards instead of those of the time in which the story is set. Perhaps Noyce’s focus on the journey itself is for the best, because simplemindedness is less of an issue that way. In both films, Noyce punctuates the dramatic climaxes with a heaping dose of slow-motion that do less to boost audience comprehension of the moment than they do to milk it. Crass manipulations of this sort seem the exact wrong thing to do when attempting to make a cogent political argument, but they’re the best Noyce has to work with in either film, it seems.
The Quiet American - * * 1/2
Rabbit-Proof Fence - * *