DANCER UPSTAIRS, THE
Mysterious terrorists in a Latin American country are killing people and leaving oblique messages that refer to their leader Ezequiel. The all-too idealistic Agustin Rejas (Javier Bardem) is put in charge of the case by the ruthless junta with orders to identify and eliminate the secret little army, which is destabilising the regime. When he meets his daughterís ballet teacher Yolande (Laura Morante), the decent and loyal husband Agustin begins to fall in love, while his target remains elusive. As he draws closer, with clues that are found in the most obscure places, Agustin is unaware of the impact his detective work will have on his own life. His confusion is greatest at the moment of his success, which even offers him a chance to be the next president Ė at a price he has to evaluate most carefully.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
Itís impact sometimes frustratingly hindered by thick accents and confusing editing, The Dancer Upstairs begins with great promise. Edgy, tension-driven scenes brilliantly shot set up an intriguing scenario, but the film lurches rather than flows. We are in a Latin American country; ANY Latin American country, a mixture of Argentina, Colombia, Brazil and Paraguay, perhaps. The fact that it doesnít matter Ė because the story could be true to any of them - actually matters. A political thriller that wishes to be allegorical, like Animal Farm, needs to be as removed from its reality as was that book. If it isnít, it should be specific to a place (even if itís an invented one), or it leaves the audience in a hypothetical world with no physical terms of reference. Like many US films set in foreign countries, the filmís main language is English, with patches of an indigenous language dialogue subtitled. Perhaps the filmmakers should have bitten the commercial bullet and used Spanish throughout. Itís arguable which option delivers a better marketing prospect. The screenplay clearly attempts to capture the flavour of the book (written back in 1994), an unnervingly prescient tale of blind terrorism, breeding on fear and focused on a mesmerising leader. Al Qaeda and Osama spring to mind. Of course itís based on a decade of Nicholas Shakespeareís Latin American observations, aided by his imaginings. The romantic strand of the story is more than the usual token insertion, as it slices through the essence of the plot (but Iíll leave it mysteriously there to avoid spoiling the revelations).
John Malkovich has tested his directorial mettle on tough material. This tale would challenge any established director, never mind a novice, but the film shows a formidable and natural talent at work. Some of the scenes are quite masterful, and he shows his emotional range as a filmmaker in the dynamics of the structure. Unfortunately, sometimes these dynamics become jerky jumps, lacking a natural flow. We are pressed to work with him to keep the narrative and events in context. Some incidents simply donít gel into the film. I donít mind working through a film, but I prefer the challenges to be less mechanical. The mood, however, saves it, offering a sombre and volatile picture of the clash between undemocratic regimes and terrorists. Pity the people.
Review by Louise Keller:
John Malkovichís much awaited, controversial directing debut is a fascinating investigation and chase for a radical revolutionary. Based on Nicholas Shakespeareís novel of the same intriguing name, The Dancer Upstairs paints a disturbing picture of corruption and violence, but even though many of the details are based on fact, the story is told as if it were fiction. Itís a tough film and leaves behind many images that are very distressing. Images of dead dogs suspended by lampposts, a chicken with a stick of dynamite tied to its leg, children suicide bombers and bloodied victims of bomb blasts and gunfire. But behind these haunting images comes a human story of an idealistic policeman (charismatically played by Javier Bardem) who is thrust in the alley to sniff out the tom cats. Itís no wonder that Bardem is considered to be Latin Americaís answer to George Clooney: his handsome features and onscreen vulnerability are combined with assured toughness. (His English has also improved since his Oscar winning performance in Before Night Falls.) Shakespeareís script takes us into a complex world, firmly establishing the characters and given them a wholeness and entity with which we can identify. Bardemís Rejas is a devoted father and caring husband, although we can see at a glance that he and his self-obsessed wife have little in common. Her interests range from plastic surgery to playing tennis and her literary evenings. Just as Rejas is instinctively drawn to Yolande (Laura Morante is wonderful), so are we, and we can physically sense their connection. Shot in Spain, Ecuador and Portugal with a multi-national and fabulous cast, The Dancer Upstairs gives that wonderful sense of being there, and although the story is not a pretty one, we canít wait to find out what happens next. Filled with tension and a genuine air of uncertainty, Malkovich has delivered a truly riveting film. It may trouble you, but you will feel well rewarded for taking the journey.
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NICHOLAS SHAKESPEARE INTERVIEW by Andrew L. Urban
Director John Malkovich
DANCER UPSTAIRS, THE (MA)
CAST: Javier Bardem, Laura Morante, Juan Diego Botto, Elvira Minguez, Alexandra Lencastre, Oliver Cotton, Luis Miguel Cintra, Javier Manrique, Abel Folk
PRODUCER: Andres Vicente Gomez and John Malkovich
DIRECTOR: John Malkovich
SCRIPT: Nicholas Shakespeare (based on his novel)
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Jose Luis Alcaine, AEC
EDITOR: Mario Battistel
MUSIC: lberto Iglesias
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Pierre-Francois Limbosch
RUNNING TIME: 136 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Fox Searchlight
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: July 3, 2003