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At the Movies

Epic lives


The highest praise I’ve heard for any recent movie came from one of my sons who discovered J.R.R. Tolkien when he was 10 years old. He assumed he would be deeply disappointed by The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, but is ready to pack up and move to Middle Earth after seeing how set-makers conjured up artificial towns and towers.

Peter Jackson and his associates make good use of the gorgeous scenery of New Zealand; the textual cuts were judicious; and a short exposition leads those who haven’t read the The Lord of the Rings trilogy into the complex plot. Ian McKellen is superb as Gandalf, but one feels indebted to the whole cast rather than to a group of stars.

The Shire in particular is charming. Hobbit holes become credible homes for these halflings, suggesting their connection with nature as well as their love of fun, food and each other. The hobbits play a key role in a worldwide struggle between good and evil, which they never would have thought themselves able to carry out. Although the fantasy leads us to elfin magic, wizardly fireworks and the swordplay of knights and kings, it is the hobbits with whom we identify.

This is no ordinary quest, though it uses the usual imaginative props -- the dark ring wraiths are terrifying, the weapons are artfully made to resemble Tolkien’s Anglo-Saxon models, and the ring itself seems to breathe and whisper, revealing its inner power. What is different is that “Ring” is not a search for something, but one that requires a different virtue: refusing to use brute power to destroy power. At the end three hobbits, one elf, one dwarf, and one man are left pursuing their promise to help the hobbit Frodo (Elijah Wood ) reach the fire-spouting land of Mordor to destroy the fatal ring before it delivers all power to the evil Sauron.

For me, the fighting grew boringly repetitive, and there were too many shots of the destruction of the landscape by the dark wizard Saruman (Christopher Lee) and the birth of his Orc battalions from the mud. The musical score is attractive, however, and seldom intrusive, suggesting medieval and perhaps New Age origins. The role of Arwen (Liv Tyler), the beautiful daughter of the elf king at Rivendell, is slightly enlarged to include a brief love scene with the hero Aragon.

Overall, the moviemakers have preserved the interpersonal strengths and magic of Tolkien’s epic as well as its timely message about power.

ris, the movie version of John Bayley’s memoirs of the last years of his wife Iris Murdoch, may win an Academy nomination for Judi Dench as the novelist-philosopher with Alzheimer’s disease. Though Dame Judi deserves praise for resisting the temptation of a showy performance, the movie’s endless shifting from past to present leaves no place to convey the very qualities of the mind whose loss we are intended to mourn. We learn that the young Murdoch (Kate Winslet) was an independent-minded, attractive siren, not that the mature woman had important things to say on the meaning of the good.

Jim Broadbent uses up his complete bag of actor’s tricks as the fussy, incompetent husband, but we wonder how much resentment (unintentional?) is mixed into Bayley’s description of his marriage to a dominant partner. The swimming scenes offer some moving moments, but “Iris” cheapens its central situation, and ends up as an exploitation of the real Murdoch.

Russell Crowe would seem the leading candidate for the Best Actor award for his portrayal of schizophrenic mathematical genius John Nash in A Beautiful Mind. However, Crowe’s disciplined and moving performance in a complex role during which he ages over several decades fails to disguise the sentimental framework in which Nash’s life is presented -- saved by the love of a patient wife (Jennifer Connelly) and ending with a gushy 1994 Nobel Prize speech.

The movie departs widely from Sylvia Nasar’s biography of Nash, and some have criticized the omission of significant details in his sexual history. Biographical movies needn’t contain factual accuracy, but “A Beautiful Mind” doesn’t make Nash’s intellectual work even slightly intelligible or explain the Cold War context in which much of his career was played out. The movie wants to trick us into sharing some of his delusions, which it shows as already present in graduate school, before he did his important work in game theory, for which he received the Nobel Prize in Economics more than 40 years later. Harold Kuhn, however, co-editor with Nasar of The Essential John Nash, says Nash was not delusional till 1959. Audiences will nevertheless be deeply moved by Crowe’s brilliant portrayal of this tortured genius and cheer the news that Nash and his wife were remarried last June.

Todd Field received deservedly enthusiastic reviews for his first work as director of In the Bedroom, an adaptation of Andre Dubus’ short story “Killings.” Those whose eardrums suffer during action movies will be grateful for one that makes use of silence while Ruth and Matt Fowler (Sissy Spacek and Tom Wilkinson) grieve for their murdered son Frank (Nick Stahl). Spacek is a strong Oscar contender, and Wilkinson is even more impressive, trying to comfort an unforgiving wife. Natalie Strout (Marisa Tomei) is outstanding as the not-yet-divorced, somewhat older woman with whom Frank has been having an affair.

“Killings” seemed largely a technical exercise for Dubus, not one of his best stories. Field fills out his movie by inventing material for the first two-thirds of it and retains a highly improbable conclusion. The film’s deliberate pace deserves praise, but when empty time is filled with repetitious shots of Ruth watching TV and directing the high school choir, it’s easy to grow restless. Ruth wants Frank to go back to architectural school, and resents Natalie because she is lower class, has two small children and an estranged husband, Richard Strout (William Mapother), a privileged, former high school athlete. Matt privately shares Ruth’s worries but is pleased that his son is loved by an attractive young woman.

After the murder, the killer is let out on bail, and in a small town it’s hard not to run into him. Matt is outraged that Strout will probably get a mild sentence for manslaughter, but takes some comfort in poker games with his friends. “In the Bedroom” explodes when long-repressed recriminations between husband and wife are finally aired. Though Field’s final shots of the town at dawn bring no peace, “In the Bedroom” respects its audience and makes us look forward to its director’s future work.

Gosford Park, Robert Altman’s new movie, is part Agatha Christie and part “Upstairs-Downstairs,” entertainingly satiric fun with an all-star English cast including Maggie Smith, Helen Mirren, Alan Bates, Kristin Scott Thomas, Emily Watson and Jeremy Northam. It all happens during a 1932 weekend of pheasant hunting at the country estate of Sir William McCordle (Michael Gambon), and though the whodunnit aspects of the story are weak -- its chief detective is terminally ineffective -- the complex relations among guests and servants, and between the classes, are lightning-fast and witty. I’d need to see it at least once more to be sure of all that goes on, since Altman’s camera moves so quickly from one room to another that one doesn’t always know who’s speaking (often whispering) or what they’re saying. Insights into class structure are consistently sharp and often funny, however, not least during the murder, which occurs while Northam is singing romantic ballads to a widely varied set of reactions from the guests.

Kandahar, the new film from Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf, couldn’t be more topical. Less lyrical than his superb “Gabbeh,” it is an episodic, semi-fictional evocation of pre-invasion Afghanistan, shot on the Iranian border. Overwhelming glimpses of human degradation and ecological devastation are loosely tied together with the story of Nafas (Nelofer Pazira), who sets out for her native Kandahar in search of a sister who is threatening to commit suicide.

Nafas’ diary entries of her experiences give unity to otherwise scattered incidents. Opening shots set the tone: torsos attached to wooden and plastic legs are dropped by parachute in the midst of ramshackle desert huts. On the ground is a Red Cross center that offers help for the many men, their legs blown off by land mines, who are competing desperately for replacements.

As Nafas begs and buys her way closer to her sister’s village, we get revealing glimpses of everyday life, especially of the women and children. Looking for a guide, she finds a man who will take her along with his other wives, provided she wears the burka. Young boys are trained to recite the Quran at breakneck speed, without any understanding. Asked about Kalashnikovs, they are better informed: They are to be used to kill the infidels who threaten their religion. A boy who gets away from the school becomes Nafas’ guide and is soon a hardened hustler. Nafas also encounters an idealistic African-American doctor who treats an Afghan woman without being able to see or touch her. In the film’s most moving scene, a large group of women wearing burkas march together across the sands, singing and ready for celebration, as they accompany one of their number who is about to be married.

Nelofer Pazira, who plays Nafas, is an exiled 28-year-old Canadian journalist who tried to go back to Afghanistan to rescue an old friend. When the Taliban made it impossible to enter the country, she contacted Makhmalbaf, who asked her to collaborate on the movie. “Kandahar” is not a fully rounded movie, but takes on extra power when one of Nafas’diary entries addresses Afghanistan directly: “One day the world will see your trouble and come to your aid.” Pazira, however, is unsure about what is happening now: “Bombing introduces another set of extremists. We will come to regret this 10 years later.”

Joseph Cunneen is NCR’s regular movie reviewer.

National Catholic Reporter, January 25, 2002