out of Five
Running time: 136
Slow-burning political thriller with a strong central performance by Bardem – an impressive directorial debut from Malkovich.
Whatever you think you know about John Malkovich; that he’s an excellent stage actor, that he’s only really had one GREAT film role to date (in Dangerous Liaisons), that he’s recently taken to producing films that would otherwise have been overlooked and that he had the sense of humour to appreciate Being John Malkovich – it’s safe to say that none of that will prepare you for his directorial debut, which is an impressive, slow-burning political thriller very much in the style of the films of Costa-Gavras, one of Malkovich’s acknowledged influences.
Nicholas Shakespeare (no relation) adapted the screenplay from his own
novel. Ostensibly it’s set in an unnamed Latin American country, but the obvious model is the Peruvian government’s attempts to hunt down the revolutionary guerrillas of Shining Path.
Shot mostly in English, the film stars Spanish actor Javier Bardem as Rejas, an honest policeman in a corrupt environment, who is given the task of hunting down a group of revolutionary terrorists. At the same time, although married, he struggles with his feelings for his daughter’s dance class teacher, played by Laura Morante.
Unsurprisingly, given Malkovich’s theatre background, he gets superb
performances from his cast, particularly Bardem who gives an understated yet powerful display. There’s no ‘Shouty Al’ Pacino-like grandstanding here – in fact, it’s the opposite, as Malkovich frequently allows his camera to linger on the actor’s silent expression.
There are moments of shocking violence in the film - the terrorists’ most popular method appears to involve attaching dynamite to the legs of animals and chucking them into crowded places. Their second favourite method involves finding children who are willing to blow themselves up for the cause – we’re never quite told how this works.
However, this is not your typical Hollywood violence – the scenes serve as a brutal counterpoint to Bardem’s painstakingly measured investigation.
It’s interesting to compare this to The Quiet American, which is,
essentially, a ‘Hollywood-ised’ version of an equally political story.
Malkovich’s film is much slower-paced, but it achieves a slow burning
intensity that will get under your skin.
As such, the film feels very European and has a lot in common with the political thrillers of director Costa-Gavras, such as Missing, Z and State of Siege, which is explicitly referenced in Malkovich’s film (Indeed, if you enjoy The Dancer Upstairs, those other films are well worth tracking down on video or DVD).
To sum up, The Dancer Upstairs is a suspenseful, thought-provoking thriller with superb performances - an impressive directorial debut and highly recommended. It’s enough to make you actively look forward to Malkovich’s next project and there aren’t many actor-directors you can say that about…