Friday, February 29, 2008
The Year of Living Dangerously (1982)
(Image from IMP Awards)
The Year of Living Dangerously (1982)
Peter Weir seems to be one of the most consistent filmmakers around - or rather, consistently good, since there are plenty of rubbish ones out there who are unwaveringly consistent. He also seems to take a lot of breaks between films, which is a shame, though perhaps that may be a reason for his consistency. Stylistically his films are linked by being generally restrained and unsentimental and full of detached observations. I like all of the films of his that I've seen, though the only one I'm a huge fan of is 'Master and Commander'. 'The Year of Living Dangerously' is one of his earlier films, but it still bears his hallmarks.
The year is 1965 and Guy Hamilton (Mel Gibson) is a reporter for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation who is assigned to work in Indonesia. It is a period of civil unrest, with President Sukarno caught in the middle of a brewing conflict between the military and the Communist Party. Guy is initially lost at sea even among the community of Western journalists stationed there until he is helped by Billy Kwan (Linda Hunt), a dwarf cameraman who feels a great empathy for the Indonesian people and has lots of connections. Billy sees decency in Guy, something the other journalists lack, and he therefore sets up key interviews for him. He then plays at being a puppeteer (a metaphor that is established very early on) to set Guy up with Jill Bryant (Sigourney Weaver), a young woman who works at the British Embassy. As the political situation grows more unstable, Guy's ambition grows with his journalistic successes and leads to him having to choose between his friends and his career.
It's a very textured film with a lot going on. On the one hand the film is the personal story of Guy Hamilton and his career and personal life. On the other it tells of the political and social landscape of Indonesia and the perspective of the foreign media against that landscape. And then there's the tragic story of Billy Kwan, who is the fabric that joins all of the other elements together and is in many ways the heart of the film. As I mentioned earlier, Weir's eye is that of a detached observer - this film acknowledges the complexity and tragedy of what is going on and looks upon it with sympathy, but never really takes sides or preaches. It feels even handed and respectful.
Guy Hamilton's journey and growth make for a compelling central narrative, though it also contains the film's weakest aspect - the love story. It's important to the character's arc in that it creates a dilemma and conflict and also provides an insight into his personal life, but I simply didn't find it all that engaging; it derails the movie for a prolonged stretch during which the focus is solely on the romance. Billy Kwan's dealings on the other hand are always interesting as he acts a link between Indonesia and the West, and provides a great deal of perspective. His ideals and beliefs and his love for the people are the most moving part of the film.
Linda Hunt is superb as Billy, and one quickly forgets that he is being played by a woman after the first few minutes. It's an amazing performance, full of passion and intelligence and humour, and really elevates the film. Gibson is also very good as Guy, starting off as a man who is fearless and keen but inexperienced, who slowly grows cocky and brash and willing to do anything to further his career. Sigourney Weaver, sadly, is miscast - and this is from someone who thinks she's an excellent actress. She is just not convincing as a British diplomat (the accent in particular is woeful), and while she is intelligent and tenacious and an obvious counterpart to Guy, the love between the two isn't as convincing or as strong as the bond of friendship between Guy and Billy. The rest of the cast are fairly good in their roles, but only Bembol Roco really stands out as Guy's assistant.
Once again, a very good Peter Weir film that is well made in every respect and unconventional by Hollywood movie standards. 'The Year of Living Dangerously' is a film that is unique, thought provoking, informative, and entertaining, and one that convincingly transports you to a believable representation of a particular time and place. It may have some noticeable flaws, but these are minor when considering the film as a whole.