FILMS

Making legends and breaking taboos

A Scots hero,a latin lover,a priestd a statesment take risks

PRIEST,JEFFERSON,Brian D. Johnson April 10 1995
FILMS

Making legends and breaking taboos

A Scots hero,a latin lover,a priestd a statesment take risks

PRIEST,JEFFERSON,Brian D. Johnson April 10 1995

Making legends and breaking taboos

FILMS

A Scots hero,a latin lover,a priestd a statesment take risks

If it isn’t Scottish, it’s crrrraap!” Anyone familiar with that line from the classic “Scottish Shop” sketch on Saturday Night Live will find it hard to watch Rob Roy without giggling. It is all so .wonderfully corny, this tale of a brawny Scot who lives with his bonnie lass in a wee house by a deep loch, a man whose kilt is always at the ready for a roll in the heather, but who spends most of his time scampering through the Highland mists with the lads, defending his honor at the end of a blade and camping out on cold peat under a rough tartan cloth, which doubles as a towel for swimming in the buff. There are even jokes about shagging sheep and getting “a wee bit o’ quim in the morning.” But, while it sometimes verges on self-parody, Rob Roy is a lavish spectacle, a Hollywood Highland fling that delivers what is required of a period adventure epic: wild landscapes, exotic costumes, bracing action—and bravura performances by actors with accents.

Irish-born actor Liam Neeson brings Celtic credibility to the role of Rob Roy MacGregor, the legendary warrior who feuded with British nobility in the early 1700s. The story revolves around a £1,000 loan that Rob arranges from the Marquis of Montrose (lohn Hurt) to buy cattle, which he intends to sell at a profit. But Montrose’s henchman, Archibald (Tim Roth), secretly steals the money, then viciously persecutes Rob, his wife and his clan for not repaying the debt.

As Rob, Neeson plays it straight, acting with impressive physicality. As his lass, Mary, the ever-skittish Jessica Lange seems to be off in a movie all her own—a demented romance—and is not quite at ease in her Scottish brogue. But the British bad guys are a treat. Hurt plays decadence to the hilt as the jaded and disdainful Montrose. And as Archibald, Roth is the best villain to pick up a sword since Alan Rickman’s Sheriff of Nottingham cancelled Christmas in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991). Roth plays Archibald as an outrageous fop, a mincing misogynist whose affectations mask the soul of a sociopath and the skills of an expert fencer.

Throughout the film, Scottish-born director Michael Caton-Jones {Scandal, 1988) harps on the vivid contrast between the earthy Scots and their effete English overlords. The climactic fight, a duel pitting Rob’s lumbering broadsword against Archibald’s swishy rapier, offers a classic showdown between peasant bravery and bourgeois technology. A frontier legend, Rob Roy is a western at heart. Good men become outlaws over cattle. Rich men carve up God’s green earth. Dumb guys pick fights in bars. And back at the ranch, anxious women wait for their kilted cowboys to come down from the hills.

What a casting coup. Marlon Brando, who turns 71 on April 3, is arguably the greatest actor of his generation. Johnny Depp, 31, may well be the greatest actor of his generation—he is certainly the most intriguing. Like Brando, he has a mystique about him, an utterly arresting screen presence, and, taking offbeat roles ranging from Edward Scissorhands to Ed Wood, he shows the same cavalier disregard for Hollywood etiquette. Jeremy Leven, a novice American director, has brought Depp and Brando together in Don Juan DeMarco, and you can almost see the torch being passed between them.

Jack (Brando), a burnt-out psychiatrist about to retire from his hospital job, meets his match with his last patient, a flamboyant young man (Depp) who believes he is Don Juan, the world’s greatest lover. Jack’s colleagues want the man committed. But Jack becomes enchanted by Don Juan’s delusions, and begins to inject a new romantic vigor into his own marriage. As his patient points out, turning the diagnostic tables: “You need me for a transfusion, because your blood has turned to dust.”

Leven, who also wrote the script, has penned some beautifully lyrical dialogue, especially Don Juan’s rhapsodic testimony to the art of love. The film-maker’s direction is more pedestrian, and the shambling plot produces a flat ending. But Don Juan’s flashbacks to his amorous exploits in exotic lands are a kitschy delight—Harlequin romance meets Playboy on Fantasy Island. And on the whole, the movie goes down like an aphrodisiac soufflé.

Depp and Brando make a fascinating pair. Brando, still immensely overweight, is a mountainous ruin of a man. A phony thatch of goldenblond hair frames his collapsed features like a cruel joke. His lisp seems lazier than ever, as if he can scarcely be bothered to push the words past the flesh of his mouth. This is not a performance that catches fire. Yet every moment of it is strangely rivetting. Brando conveys the poignancy of a man in the twilight of his career. Aside from his sphinx-like apparition in Apocalypse Now (1979), his deft Godfather parody in The Freshman (1990) and a string of cameos, he has not done much since Last Tango in Paris (1972). But, true to his character in the movie, he seems rejuvenated by his co-star’s uncynical energy. And Depp, acting with uncanny poise, turns in his finest performance to date.

The movie’s one clunky note is Faye Dunaway, who plays the psychiatrist’s wife. In bed with Brando, her tight-smiling face looks

absurdly reconstructed next to his deconstructed flab. Brando just toys with her. But Don Juan DeMarco’s romantic spirit is so irresistible that its ridiculous moments are easily absorbed.

Antonia Bird

PRIEST

When it comes to dramatizing extremes of sexual guilt and fear, it is hard to find a more loaded setting than the Roman Catholic Church. The Boys of St. Vincent (1992), the National Film Board’s acclaimed drama about a pederast in cleric’s clothing, offered a chilling portrait of predatory evil. Now, Priest, a devastating new movie from Britain, explores sexual taboos in the church from a very different angle. Shortly after taking up a post in a poor Liverpool parish, an idealistic young priest named Greg (Linus Roache) is tormented by two secrets. One concerns a confession from a 14-year-old girl who is being abused by her father. Greg is desperate to intervene, but church law requires that confessions remain confidential. He is also secretly gay—one night, he picks up a man at a bar and begins a torrid affair that leaves him racked with guilt.

As Greg faces his demons and tests his faith, he spirals towards a painful and redemptive fall, a Catholic catharsis. He is a sympathetic but unheroic figure. And his metaphysical anguish is offset by the unrepressed earthiness of his fellow priest in the parish, Matthew (Tom Wilkinson), a gregarious and likable renegade who makes no secret of his intimacy with the rectory housekeeper, Maria (Cathy Tyson).

Provocatively, Priest uses the potent sacraments of the church as carnal metaphors—the whispered intimacy of confession and the body-and-blood symbolism of communion. Greg, praying for compassion, stares at an image of a loin-cloth Christ on the cross and says: “I see a naked man, utterly desirable.” Finally, he cries out in exasperation: “Don’t just hang there, do something!”

Superb acting and taut, truthful direction by British film-maker Antonia Bird keep the drama on a plane of brutal realism. Despite its controversial elements, which have drawn indignant protests from Roman Catholic officials, the film never crosses over into sensationalism. Priest is the most powerful film about religion since Quebec director Denys Arcand’s Jesus of Montreal (1989). Stripping Christianity to its core, it is a heart-wrenching passion play.

JEFFERSON

James Ivo?y

The story of Thomas Jefferson’s Paris sojourn offers a rich dramatic opportunity. Before becoming the third U.S. president, Jefferson served as ambassador to France, from 1784-1789. There, gambolling in the gardens of the French aristocracy, with the tide of the French Revolution rising around him, this architect of American democracy is said to have had an affair with one of his two black slaves. But in the hands of American director James Ivory and Indian producer Ismail Merchant, the story is squandered.

Merchant and Ivory (A Room with a View, Howards End) are specialists in period elegance—franchisers of the historic and the literary. But Jefferson in Paris is overdressed and uninspired, a tedious costume epic that shies away from the drama of its subject while reverentially trying to do Jefferson justice. Nick Nolte is miscast in the title role. He plays a rationalist who has trouble expressing emotion—a dilemma for an actor. Unlike Anthony Hopkins, who gave repression a razor edge in MerchantIvory’s The Remains of the Day, Nolte just seems befuddled by it.

Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s script, meanwhile, is shapeless. It meanders through scenes of courtly diplomacy and courtly love—between Jefferson and the married Maria Cosway (Greta Scacchi). Only halfway through does the movie liven up with the arrival of the ambassador’s coquettish slave, Sally Hemings (Thandie Newton). Then, the film goes out of its way to show that she seduces him, not vice versa— as if to say, no man, not even Jefferson, could resist those sexy voodoo vibes. In trying to enshrine an American legacy, the Merchant-Ivory antiquarians could be accused of being politically incorrect. Worse, they have taken an extraordinary story and made a dreary movie.

BRIAN D. JOHNSON