The Dancer Upstairs



USA (US/Spain) 2002 : John Malkovich : 133mins

Although his subject matter is violent revolution, Malkovich’s directorial debut is a cautiously conservative, thoroughly conscientious filming of Nicholas Shakespeare’s novel, adapted for the screen by Shakespeare himself. A self-consciously mature, solidly-crafted, slightly slow political thriller with romantic undertones, The Dancer Upstairs shares a sub-genre alongside the likes of Philip Noyce’s The Quiet American – old-fashioned literary adaptations set in an ‘exotic’ locale which found themselves suddenly and unexpectedly topical after the events of September 11th, 2001.

Shakespeare’s novel is a lightly fictionalised account of how the Peruvian authorities tracked down Abimael Guzman, who as ‘Chairman Gonzalo’ led the Sendero Luminoso (‘Shining Path’) movement to worldwide headlines with their Mao-inspired terrorist antics. Here Guzman is renamed Duran – a.k.a. Ezequiel (Abel Folk) – whose followers aim to disrupt and eventually replace the government of an unnamed country in ‘Latin America.’ Idealistic police detective Agustin Rejas (Javier Bardem) is assigned to the case, just as he finds himself drifting into an affair with his daughter’s ballet-teacher Yolanda (Laura Morante).

It’s hard to avoid thinking of Osama Bin Laden and the Al’Qaida network when witnessing the methods of ‘Ezequiel’ and his nameless organisation – “We don’t know who they are or what they want!” exclaims a baffled investigator. As someone else says, “He’s every tick of every clock,” and Malkovich deftly evokes what has now become an all-too-familiar atmosphere of generalised danger and diffused terror – with even young children recruited as foot-soldiers, there are longer such things as ‘safe places.’ And the danger doesn’t just come from the terrorists – the corrupt government wastes no time in (re)imposing martial law and sending troops out onto the street.

Heralding his explosions using colour-coded fireworks, Ezequiel’s spectacular attacks often resemble a grand, deadly form of performance art – literally so, in the film’s single most effective sequence, as government ministers attending an avant-garde dance evening are invited on stage and assassinated in front of bemused theatregoers who think the bloodshed is all part of the show. This scene also features the film’s wittiest line of dialogue: “Bring back Robert Wilson!” someone shouts from the audience. “No, don’t!” replies another, who clearly isn’t such a fan of the radical US choreographer.

But there’s very little humour in what is a very straight-faced piece of work that takes its tone from Bardem’s sombre characterisation of Rejas. Like the film, he’s at his most persuasive and engaging in the procedural sequences as he pieces together Ezequiel’s past along with his trusted team – though it’s a failing of Shakespeare’s plotting that far too many pieces of the puzzle turn out to be (coincidentally and very conveniently) directly connected with Rejas himself.

And there’s something lacking in the investigator’s romantic interludes with Morante’s Yolanda which provide the film with its title. It certainly doesn’t help that whenever the pair are alone in a scene, Malkovich turns up the volume of Alberto Iglesias’s score to the extent that it becomes tricky making out exactly what’s being said – elsewhere the music is deployed with notably effective restraint, complemented by Malkovich’s most successful directorial flourish: his choice to bookend the film with a terrific live recording by Nina Simone.

The decipherability issue might not have been such a pressing issue if the decision hadn’t been taken (presumably on financial, mass-appeal grounds) to have everyone speaking heavily-accented English – though all written signs and newspaper headlines are in Spanish. The somewhat underpowered nature of the Bardem-Morante romantic angle only becomes a major stumbling-block at the very end, when what we’ve seen of his relationship with the enigmatic Yolanda doesn’t quite seem to justify the extremity of his noble actions.

Bardem is a sufficiently strong and imposing performer to carry it off, however – at times he recalls a young, moustachioed Donald Sutherland, a very big man with a surprisingly gentle voice. So gentle, in fact, that Bardem often sounds rather like the whispery Malkovich himself – the director unable to resist subtly insinuating himself into proceedings, Ezequiel-style.

23rd December, 2003
(seen same day, UGC Boldon)

by Neil Young
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