Sunday, 2 August 2009

In praise of Peter Weir

Three of my favourite films are on the face of it utterly different, so it was a surprise when i realised that all were directed by the same man. In the first, Witness, an action thriller is metamorphosed into a meditation about simplicity and modernity, innocence and corruption, harmony and violence as a detective is forced by circumstances and his own decency to protect a young boy who was the sole witness to a murder and then has to go into hiding himself among the boy's Amish community that lives surrounded by the American way of life but apart from it. No pea-brained females with bee-stung lips in this film; instead we get a real woman, exquisitely played by Kelly McGillis. In fact everyone seems real. The police officer, played with grit, emotional intensity and depth by Harrison Ford, is trapped in the violent culture he comes from, and blows his own cover by challenging some young thugs who have picked on his Amish party on a trip to the local town. Ultimately in a gripping scene the policeman aided by the boy and the whole Amish community saves the boy and himself from assassins who come to look for them, but he and the woman he loves must part because he cannot cross the divide between the two worlds.
The second film is The Truman Show, which (imho) deserved the Oscar for Best Film but was perhaps meat too strong for the judges. The protagonist (played by Jim Carrey who makes credible a difficult and uncharacteristically serious role) is a young man unaware that he is the only real person in his entire small-town world which is in fact a 24-hour soap opera owned by a corporation and directed by a pitiless apparently all-powerful mastermind (played excellently by Ed Harris). In this world nothing is sincere and everything is fake except the hero. There are multi-layered audiences: the audience in the film, for whom the hero's entire life is TV entertainment, and the audience of the film, who are in on the secret before the hero himself, though its true awfulness is revealed only gradually, such as the moment when he has a domestic argument with his wife who blows her cover by speaking to her minders behind the hidden camera and then resigns from her contract, or the moment when his best friend asks whether he would lie to him - a line which is itself dictated through a hidden earpiece by the Ed Harris character. The film depicts the hero growing in maturity and understanding as cracks appear in the fake world, he gradually perceives the truth and eventually, with the help of a woman who loves him and manages to infiltrate the fake world to reach him (Natascha McElhone) makes his escape to the real world. What is this film about? Obviously it is a metaphor but one that defies definition. A mockery of soaps, of consumerism, of media manipulation, yes, but it also asks what is real, who and what can we trust? It is not really a comedy, either: almost every scene screams, "It's not funny!"
The third film is Master and Commander: the Far Side of the World in which we are in the Napoleonic Wars aboard an English warship. England and France are vying for mastery of the seas. The English vessel is seriously outgunned by a French privateer which is prowling the oceans, but the English commander (played by Russell Crowe) will not give up and admit defeat. Ultimately by a series of brilliant ruses the Englishman wins. However, that is only the bare bones of what the film is really about. It is really about the microcosm of life on an eighteenth-century ship, recreated in minute and often grisly detail, whether accurate in all respects I couldn't say, but utterly convincing. It is also about the Galapagos Islands and an opportunity to make great scientific discoveries missed because the English commander does not understand what they might signify, though his friend the ship's surgeon does. It is also about courage, ingenuity, friendship, music. Or is it about subverting all the norms of a Hollywood film? Remarkably there is not a single female speaking part in the whole film. Or is it about the love of the sea, and of film-making itself? The film is based on Patrick O'Briens Jack Aubrey novels, without being slavishly tied to any one of them. A jewel of a film.
So what do the three films have in common? A world within a world; central characters who are complex and intriguing and re forced to make choices and mistakes; masterly attention to detail; wonderful use of music; rejection of everything shallow and superficial; all these things and more.


lizw said...

Witness is one of my favourite films of all time. I still find myself humming the music from the barn-raising scene. I used to know some Mennonites who had Amish relatives, and they reckoned it was the most accurate portrayal of Amish life for non-Amish folk that existed at that time, though they did think Kelly McGillis's character went further with Harrison Ford's character than any real baptised Amish woman would be likely to do. (Real Amish of course would not have seen the film unless there were some truly extraordinary circumstance, so they aren't available to ask.)

Jo Hayes said...

I don't doubt you are right. All the same the McGillis character convinced because nothing had prepared her for falling in love. The mutual liking between the detective and her young son made the parting even more poignant.

Zuri said...

The Galapagos Islands are the most incredible living museum of evolutionary changes, with a huge variety of exotic species (birds, land animals, plants) and landscapes not seen anywhere else.