Ever since abstract painting made its bewildering debut early in the 20th century, critics have argued whether art should represent reality or be allowed to create its own visual universe. In The Ebony Tower, a television movie adapted from a 1974 novella by British author John Fowles, such a debate becomes the focus for a lyrical drama that entertains with an unusual combination of intelligence, sensuality and wit. Produced by Britain’s Granada Television and starring Sir Laurence Olivier, the 90-minute film should delight readers of Fowles’s best-selling story about an art critic who stumbles into the private domain of an old master. The television rendering is impeccably faithful to the author’s original literary canvas. And by transposing a story about painting to the visual realm, the program fulfils the circuit of Fowles’s narrative in a most satisfying way.
Olivier portrays Henry Breasley, an eminent British painter who has retired
to an ivy-covered château in the French countryside, where he lives with two female art students. Their names are Anne and Diana, but Breasley prefers to call them the Freak and the Mouse. The Mouse (Greta Scacchi) is an elegant blonde and serious artist who serves as the painter’s devoted muse, and the Freak (Toyah Willcox) is a flirtatious punk with flame-red hair who pampers his aging libido. The story centres on a young art critic and painter, David Williams (Roger Rees), who comes to the château to spend a few days interviewing Breasley. From the moment he arrives, encountering Anne and Diana sunbathing naked in the garden, Williams’s well-ordered universe is upset. Slowly and reluctantly, he becomes attracted to Anne while trying to unravel the bonds of loyalty that tie her to Breasley.
A modernist knight lost in the castle of an old master, Williams bravely tries discussing art with the wine-flushed Breasley, who asks him if he is a painter or “just a gutless word-twister.” In fact, Williams is a successful avant-garde artist—the movie’s opening sequence shows him standing at an easel beside a lake, parsimoniously daubing paint onto canvas with a ruler to create an abstract horizon. But Breasley, whose sweeping landscapes are lush with forests and nudes, detests art that follows in “the footsteps of Pythagoras”—he calls it “obstruct” art. And Williams’s polite, liberal remarks about making room for a changing world only provoke him. “To me,” says Breasley, “a girl’s legs look much the same today as when Rembrandt painted them.”
Olivier excels in his role as the irascible painter, whose caustic manner masks the soul of a frightened'child. The actor swings back and forth between the character’s emotional extremes with acrobatic ease. His voice—spitting out epithets, creaking under the influence of wine, trailing off into reverie—performs extraordinary feats without ever straining credibility. Opposite his withering gaze, Williams seems shallow and contemptible, a much less sympathetic character than in the original Fowles story. The sour-faced Rees portrays him as a milquetoast diplomat who lacks the inner torment that allowed the reader to identify with him in the book.
But generally the film follows the texture of the narrative brushstroke for brushstroke. Entire sections of Fowles’s taut dialogue are reproduced intact, and the camera gracefully captures the languor of the book’s bucolic setting. Indeed, the television art of The Ebony Tower not only mirrors its literary source but reveals the hidden colors of an imaginary landscape.
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