How can you not like a film written by Shakespeare?
Nicholas Shakespeare wrote the novel and then the script for the 2003 movie "The Dancer Upstairs," works inspired by real-life incidents he encountered while living in Peru in the 1980s. However, Shakespeare's own explanations of these incidents in the DVD's accompanying documentary are more compelling than the movie itself.
Be that as it may, a plus for the movie is that it's the first directorial effort by noted actor John Malkovich, and a rather gutsy move it is on his part to take on a serious, character-driven political drama rather than a surefire action-adventure thriller. Unfortunately, Malkovich, known to take chances in his films by playing everyone from the sweetest heroes to the heaviest villains, attempts perhaps a bit much in his first movie as director by trying to include a little something for everyone, from mystery to romance to murder, without making any of the various elements as telling as they might have been. Of course, one could, I suppose, blame the writer as much as the director for this misstep. It must have been hard for Shakespeare to leave anything out of his script that he fancied in his book; and it appears that by attempting to condense each and every morsel of the book, he left out very little.
The outcome of trying to do too much in so brief a time as two-plus hours is that the film feels longer and slower than it really is; yet despite its slow pace, it never satisfactorily covers any of its diverse themes. It's a lapse that the writer and the director may have to deal with in their subsequent work.
As I said, the story's premise is based on several real-life experiences, but the names and places have been changed. The setting is the "the recent past" in "Latin America." If that's a tad vague, it's meant to make the tale more emblematic, more representative of politics, love, romance, mystery, terrorism, and corruption everywhere. In a sense, it works, even if it seems to be material already covered by filmmaker Costa-Gavras in "State of Siege," a movie that is appropriately referenced in this new one. It was also daring of Malkovich to choose to do a first movie set in Latin America, using a largely Latin-American cast. Now, if he had just narrowed down his subject matter a bit....
Oscar-nominee Javier Bardem (for "Before Night Falls") stars as a former lawyer turned policeman, Det. Lt. Agustin Rejas, an respectable man who became a cop to find a "more honest way of practising the law." He couldn't stand the injustice of fighting to let rich criminals go free. He's working in the capital when a series of bizarre events start to happen. Dead animals are found hanging from lampposts with signs in blood reading "Long live President Ezequiel." Only there is no President Ezequiel, except as a Biblical allusion. After that, a succession of terrorist attacks take the lives of prominent citizens and political figures, many of the attacks initiated by children and teens. Rejas is assigned the case, but he's undermanned and over pressured, and the terrorists make it doubly hard by issuing no manifesto and forcing no demands. It's as if the evildoers are coming out of nowhere for no reason but to create chaos. If Rejas can't find the culprits quickly, the government will assume they are under attack by revolutionaries, declare martial law, and bring in troops.
As the investigation is going on, we see Rejas's involvement in several other issues: His growing estrangement from his shallow, self-absorbed wife; his love for his young daughter and her participation in ballet; and his gradual attraction to his daughter's ballet teacher, Yolanda (Laura Morante), in whom he sees a great profundity and insight into life. As the movie proceeds, the love interest heightens, and before we know it the mystery plot is almost forgotten. Then, moments later it's back to the mystery, and for extended stretches Yolanda is forgotten. It didn't take long before I was urging the film simply to get on with one thing or the other.
Fact is, the movie is indeed slow and meanders a lot. Malkovich thankfully avoids too many quick edits, yet his camera is sometimes overly busy for questionable reasons. It moves around constantly, panning from one character to another, going about a room or out a window. We get a multitude of shots of Rejas merely walking here or there or giving meaningful glances or talking to one person or another, seemingly without purpose. One wonders if the movie's time span couldn't have been used more constructively to expound upon the Ezequiel mystery or the detective's romance or the nature of crime or corruption or terrorism. But Malkovich and Shakespeare seem content to linger over minor things, possibly to let the audience absorb them better but to the detriment of the movie's tempo.
The result of the filmmakers' lingering is that the movie is big on mood and atmosphere at the expense of an engaging plot. It begins favorably enough with the opening music coming up out of silence over a black screen and credits. This sets the tone for the noir events to follow, but it is also a portent of the shrouded darkness surrounding the whole film. While there are a few requisite action sequences, the story is mainly character and dialogue driven, which would have been fine if the story line had settled down into one course or another. As it is, we never learn very much about anyone and, consequently, don't care very much about them; we don't really get caught up in the romance; and we barely get involved with the terrorist mystery. We don't even learn very much about Rejas, despite the fact that he's in virtually every scene and that Bardem does a terrific job acting and expressing himself as the character.
When the end comes, there is a turn of events that is easily anticipated but which for obvious reasons I cannot comment upon; nonetheless, the ending appears as highly logical and consistent with everything that has come before it, as well as totally inconsistent. Like so much of the movie, it is apparently meant to be another of the story's many intellectual ironies, but it's more apt to be frustratingly ironic to its audience.
"Half the people we meet, we get wrong," says Rejas. This is possibly the best and most telling line in the movie, summing up the problems people have everywhere in their interactions with one another. Life is a mystery, and we can never tell what's behind the facade others put up. The line also describes the problems of the movie's characters and maybe even the problems of the movie itself. It gets about half of everything right.
The picture quality is nothing short of excellent. Transferred in a 1.74:1 ratio anamorphic widescreen, the video displays an almost perfect tonal balance, neither too bright nor too dull but always natural. The viewer need only look out the window or around the room and back at the TV screen to see just how natural the colors and contrasts really are. There is a very light grain present, hardly noticeable and undoubtedly inherent to the master print, very little line flutter, and few or no halos. Like the movie, the video is low-key and all the more impressive for it.
In terms of musical ambience enhancement, the rear channels in this Dolby Digital 5.1 audio setup provide generally splendid response, if a little overzealous on occasion. The surrounds contribute not only to music but to explosions, audience noise, rain, thunder, and the like. But as with the movie and the video, the audio is executed in a very refined, low-key manner, with long stretches where the rear speakers are seemingly not used at all. Likewise, the bass is exceptionally deep but we hear it infrequently; and while a strong transient, or dynamic, response is rarely needed, when the demand arises, as with the sound of gunshots, the impact is stunning in its realism. Again, most impressive.
Like the movie, the bonus features are subtle but telling. First, there is an audio commentary with director John Malkovich and star Javier Bardem. Second, there is a brief but fascinating look behind the moviemaking in the twenty-one minute documentary "Revealing the Dancer Upstairs." Finally, there are two widescreen theatrical trailers, a four-minute Sundance Channel featurette on John Malkovich, and twenty-eight scene selections. Spoken languages are provided in English, French, and Spanish, with subtitles in English and Spanish.
With "The Dancer Upstairs," John Malkovich makes an auspicious directorial debut, his keenness and grace in telling his story evident in almost every shot. Yet for all its felicitous touches, its details, its atmosphere, and its fine acting, the resultant whole is a near miss. Only from time to time did the film actually reach out and touch me, grab me, and make me want to follow it further. Maybe, as I suggested earlier, it's because the first-time director is overly ambitious, hardly a demerit against him. Nevertheless, hit or miss, the movie is good enough to promise well of future projects from a man who has for years shown his skills as a superb actor and now as a potentially top-notch director as well.