Archive for May, 2008

‘Next to a battle lost, the saddest thing is a battle won’

WaterlooWhen I was in my early teens, a group of mates and I got into wargaming. These were the dark, pre-Internet days, and whereas now we might have contented ourselves with chatrooms and interactive Football Manager, back then there was nothing much to do but purchase hundreds of miniature lead soldiers and plough them into each other. Well, there was football, and indeed American Football, but on only so many occasions could we risk the delights of Redcar’s Dog Crap Stadium in order to indulge. After spending hours taking painstaking efforts to paint the models, designing fields with little bushes, buildings, roads, etc, it was time for a game, and nothing did for us more than the campaigns of the Napoleonic era.

As anyone who’s wasted their lives in such practices will know, this period offers the most promise for gamers. The alternatives were ancient battles (too pitched), World War One (waiting in trenches until someone was bored enough to attack) and made-up nonsense involving fantasy wars set in the future. Who knew what that was all about? The real appeal of Napoleonic gaming was that it was a strategist’s dream. Wars were fought via single battles that involved vast armies, and whoever emerged victorious tended to claim enormous advantages. There were rarely any atrocities committed against civilians. Guerilla warfare existed only in the anti-British Americas. All in all, it came across as a more elegant style of conflict, war waged by gentlemen, if you will.

As this was a clash between the great powers of the day - France, Austria, Russia, Britain and Prussia - there was no great disparity in the technical levels of each army. All were roughly up to speed when it came to the mix of infantry, cavalry and artillery, and though all sides had areas in which they claimed superiority and weakness the real decisive element was in the tactical minds of the field generals. For many years, Napoleon himself held the upper hand. A superb military thinker, his great skill was in speed. As the Duke of Wellington once observed, he moved his cannons as quickly as pistols, and it was for this specific reason that he caught the attention of French leaders during the revolution and rose through the ranks. However, Wellington was no shirk either. For most of the Napoleonic wars, he spent his time fighting through Spain, slowly freeing the Iberian Peninsula from the grip of the French. It wasn’t until Waterloo itself that Wellington confronted Napoleon in battle and met the ultimate test of his own intelligence.

In our games, I was always the French, and unlike Bonaparte, I was no student of Caesar. Thinking about it, I reckon my opponents - who knew the rules - cheated when it required them to do so. Most battles ended in stalemate as everything tended to be decided by early cavalry battles. Whoever won these mass fights held an immense upper hand as horsemen were so superior to infantry. That was according to the instructions, at least, which I never bothered reading because of the sheer disinterest attached to poring through 100+ pages of dice-throwing guidelines and so on.

Wargaming figures in 'action' - mine were never this well painted, that's if I bothered to paint them at allThe other thing about wargaming was a heightened interest in all things to do with this period. As an historian anyway, I was bound to be hooked by the adventures of ‘Boney’, and though we didn’t study any of this stuff at school (the curriculum jumped us on from colonial times to the dull-as-dishwater Industrial Revolution) there was a wealth of information to hand. Our library had books covering it in some detail, whether my fancy was for a general overview of his life and campaigns, or an appraisal of each of his marshalls (of whom the best was the bald-headed Davout, and not Ney, whom revisionists have dismissed rather aptly as a swashbuckler whose brains weren’t always in his head).

One Bank Holiday Easter Monday, at the height of our interest, the Beeb screened Waterloo, an old movie about the great battle that ended Napoleon’s threat for good. On the other side was Spartacus, and spoilt for choice as I was I taped the former and watched the latter. Suffice it to say the video wore out after repeated viewings. To me at the time, it was the ideal film, framed around the panorama of a major confrontation and looking for all the world as it might have done during the real thing. But later, I learned that Waterloo was nothing less than one of the major cinematic flops of all time. It cost something like $25m to make (putting that figure into context, Star Wars, which was released seven years later, had a production budget of $11m), and won back a fraction of that at the box office.

Does that make it a bad movie? Well, that depends on who you talk to. Ardent wargamers would argue that it takes too many liberties with what happened, though you would need to be a true connoisseur to know that the British soldiers’ packs didn’t look right, or that the Scots Greys weren’t involved on the day to the extent they were on screen. The criticisms of its accuracy are nitpicking rather than substantive. Sure, certain aspects of the truth have been twisted for dramatic effect, but not in such a way to make them unbelievable, and as it happens the story told is much closer to the events than most recreations would come close to achieving. Certainly, the characterisations of Wellington (Christopher Plummer) and Napoleon (Rod Steiger) are uncannily good, whilst the filmmakers’ efforts to create soldiers’ costumes that look the part deserve some recognition.

Christopher Plummer as WellingtonIn fact, the real reasons behind its failure are much easier to swallow. Though war movies were big business at the time, it was depictions of the Second World War that sold tickets because many viewers still remembered the era and identified with it. How could the same be true for a battle that took place 145 years ago, one that didn’t involve any Americans? The Napoleonic wars might have been fascinating to the odd person, but in general they appeared to have little relevance, a sideshow in the general sweep of history. Besides which, tastes in the industry were for more modern, urban and gritty tales. Waterloo, with its elegant glance at a time long past, meant less than nothing. Which is a shame, as it’s a cracking film for the most part.

Our tale begins in 1814. Napoleon is on the brink of abdicating the French throne as allied armies close in on Paris. Defeated, exhausted and looking quite ill, he tells his marshalls off (especially Ney, who comes in for a fair few bollockings as the tale progresses) for suggesting he ratify the ‘resignation’, and then signs it anyway. After saying an emotional goodbye to his loyal soldiers, the French Old Guard, he departs for exile on the island of Elba. Louis XVIII is crowned king, and a continent prepares to settle down.

Or does it? Within a year, Napoleon has returned, invading France with his personal guard of 1,000 men. Louis dispatches Ney to finish him off, but the army rallies to their old Emperor, as does the marshall. Having told Louis he’d bring Napoleon before him ‘in an iron cage’, he’s back by his former master’s side, preparing to overthrow the unpopular new regime. This is achieved in lightning time. The next thing we see, Bonaparte is preparing once again for war against the allies, who declared hostilities against him as soon as they found he was back in power. Only the British and Prussians can realistically deal with the problem though. Wellington is in Brussels, and the ageing General Blucher also turns around whilst in Belgium. Napoleon and his hastily assembled army make short work of the latter, effectively dividing the British and Prussians with a victory at Ligny, and then starts marching on the Belgian capital. It’s up to Wellington to stop him; the armies collide near the sleepy village of Waterloo.

What follows is a battle of epic proportions. It’s also one that depends on time. Napoleon needs to crush his enemy speedily before the Prussians can regroup and march to the field. In contrast, Wellington must hold his position and hope Blucher arrives in time to clean up. In preparation for the scrap, both camps mull over what’s about to happen, Welly worrying about his dependence on Prussia, Boney becoming ill and fretting over his ability to regain command over his failing powers. The rest is taken up by fifty minutes of intense fighting, including masses of artillery fire, cavalry charges, dying generals and the usual portents of doom. Without wanting to ruin it for anyone who doesn’t possibly know the outcome, I can say it’s an amazing visual experience, and the odd inaccuracy aside, it’s authentic and exciting enough to keep anyone on the edge of their seat. After all, as battles go, Waterloo was in the balance for a long time. It took an age to be decided. Right until the final, decisive moves, either side could have emerged as the victor.

Napoleon, played by Rod SteigerThe defects in this picture are few, but they do make a difference. My biggest complaint is that at just over two hours, it’s just too short. Certain aspects of the battle are rushed, as is a great deal of the exposition, leading to an experience that might not seem full enough to those who don’t know a lot about the events. By all accounts, a four-hour version is kicking around in the vaults, and it would be great to see this better explained edition hit the streets at some point. Without such a cut, Waterloo seems very uneven. We never really understand why the allies don’t give Napoleon another chance. All the ramifications of the battle’s events aren’t made sufficiently clear, and there isn’t enough of the fighting generally.

Waterloo was made in 1970 by Sergei Bondarchuk, who presided over a project funded with Italian and Russian money. Considering the pan-European basis of the movie, it’s for certain there’s going to be some actors involved who don’t speak English, and in places the dubbing is of a ‘Monkey’ standard i.e. bad. This is never more the case than with our own Jack Hawkins, who plays General Picton. By the time he was involved, Hawkins was extremely ill and had lost the use of his voice, so it had to be over-dubbed and never looks or indeed sounds right. And he provides one of the better turns. On the whole, it’s not a masterclass of acting, though the main protagonists do well with their parts. At times, people don’t appear to know where they need to stand or look, which adds to the confusing fun. And there are several instances where actors are shown riding fake horses, and look just like actors sitting on, er, fake horses. Very poor.

Finally, a word on the editing, which stinks generally. The early scenes leading up to the battle can be quite ponderous and irrelevant, particularly during a ball in Brussels, which is where we first meet Wellington. We also get to see his wife and niece, who appear in this one scene and then vanish, as though they have no place in the overall plot and were shoehorned in just to offer a brief glimpse of the occasional female in this men-only feature. Too much time is devoted to a group of Northern Irish soldiers fighting for Wellington. It would mean something if their tale was a squaddie’s eye view of what goes on, but this doesn’t lead anywhere either, save for the odd slice of comic relief. Once the serious fighting starts, they pretty much vanish from the action.

And yet, for all that the spectacle of the battle itself utterly outweighs any shortcomings. Bondarchuk hired the enormous Russian army to take the parts of the soldiers, and it shows. Considering Waterloo was fought between forces that possessed an approximate strength of 70,000 men each, the array of divisions has been re-enacted as faithfully as it ever could be. There are simply thousands of soldiers here, all dressed in the colour co-ordinated uniforms of the time, and to see them lined up is an astonishing sight. In one scene, Napoleon scans the opposition ranks. His telescope sweeps across battalion after battalion, and in this era when computer effects were still a distant dream, what we’re seeing surely is an army’s worth of extras. Indeed, as one source put it, whilst making the movie Bondarchuk was in control of the seventh largest fighting force in the world.

The fighting is no less worth your while. Each cohort advances to the sound of drums and its own individual tune (some of these faithfully recreated from real contemporary battle anthems). Opposing soldiers can hear their approach from hundreds of yards away, a truly frightening and ominous rumble of oncoming death. As the camera follows marching soldiers, you hear muskets being loaded, cannon fire, people urging others on, the rattle of distant shooting, and sometimes you see very little through the screen of gunpowder smoke, giving a vivid impression of what it might have been like to be there. Some of the work is breathtaking. A massive cavalry charge led by Ney looks like it served as an inspiration for the Rohirrin’s antics in The Return of the King. Thousands of horses are involved, pelting forward in formation, and yet it’s ultimately doomed as the skill of the British in countering such an attack helps to turn the course of the battle.

Napoleon and Ney on the campaign trailThat aside, we have two quite brilliant performances from Steiger and Plummer to savour. The former was in his ’shouting a lot’ phase during this time, and it serves him well as he takes on the poisoned chalice role of Napoleon. He reflects the Emperor’s violent mood swings perfectly, capturing his magnetism and revulsion at once. By the time of Waterloo, Bonaparte was failing both in terms of health and his military powers. The resulting self-doubt is shown in various scenes by Steiger, who seems to be aware that whatever else happens, Waterloo will be his epitaph.

Christopher Plummer is possibly even better as the patrician Arthur Wellesley. In reality, Wellington was an utter snob, someone who regarded his soldiers as gin-toting scum, and though Plummer’s turn agrees with this he is altogether more charismatic. Reproducing faithfully much of what the Duke actually said on the day, he comes across as believable and somehow above it all. I’m not sure if Wellington was really so repulsed by what happened that he gave up leading armies as a result, but Plummer suggests this was exactly the case.

Elsewhere, we have a fine cameo by Orson Welles as Louis XVIII. By this point, Welles was grossly overweight, and thus ideally cast as the ‘fat king’, even though his screen time is less than five minutes. Daniel O’Herlihy plays Ney precisely as we imagined him, the sword-happy gobshite who was probably not bright enough to be a leading light amongst Napoleon’s marshalls. A troupe of posh-voiced British thesps make up Wellington’s generals, all from the upper echelons but willing to follow their commander into the jaws of death.

The costumes are authentic, and the props and locations look as though everyone involved got into a timewarp back to the early nineteenth century for the sake of getting it right. No expense was spared, and as a result Waterloo looks fantastic. It’s also quite unique, hinged as it is around one set-piece battle. If only the hopelessly uneven editing could be sorted out. The movie’s potential status as a misunderstood modern classic might be gained if a more coherent cut was available. Even so, I’ll still never get my wargaming figures out again - as I recall, I sold them for booze years ago.

Posted on 16th May 2008
Under: Classics, War and that | 5 Comments »

‘If you listen very carefully, you can hear the gods laughing!’

Many met the return of the grand, large-scale historical epic with indifference, but for me it was a good thing. Though I would stop my life for two hours of film noir happily enough, nothing really beats a lush, three-hour marathon with a cast of thousands, vast ornate sets and soundtrack thundering throughout. In the fifties and sixties, the work of Cecil B DeMille and William Wyler dominated. They often referred to the Bible and early Christianity as a source, which transformed their films into church-friendly tales crammed with an omnipotent God and those who believed (the goodies) and others who did not (always met a sticky end).

The Fall of the Roman EmpireThe biggest of these was Ben Hur, a multi-Oscar winning four hours about a Jewish prince whose deeds are related in parallel with the life of Jesus. Like all such movies, it was pretty obvious stuff, hammering its values and points home and relying on a cast of straightforward heroes and villains. El Cid moved the action out of ancient times, and concentrated on a medieval Spanish warrior who fought the Moors in the name of God. Both starred Charlton Heston, a sombre voiced, square jawed presence who practically carried The Ten Commandments, another bottom discomforter, in which he took on the massive role of Moses. It was a great picture, and a top-drawer performance, as your man goes from adopted Egyptian prince to bearded sage, replete with magical staff that causes untold damage to Yul Brynner’s Pharaonic empire.

Perhaps the best epic barely touched upon Christianity at all. Spartacus commanded a superb turn from Kirk Douglas as the eponymous slave turned revolter. Even better was Lord Laurence of Olivier, playing Marcus Crassus, the patrician Roman Consul who’s charged with crushing the rebellion whilst lusting after Tony Curtis. It possessed more style and subtlety than many of its predecessors combined, though it came as the genre was winding to a close. By the late 1960s, audience tastes had moved on. There was a growing preference for realism and contemporary subject matter, leading to the gritty modern classics that dominated much of the 1970s. Spending untold millions on high concept historical melodramas just didn’t draw the public anymore. The studios couldn’t afford the outlay, and the risks involved in recouping the costs were too high.

Partly to blame for all this was The Fall of the Roman Empire, released in 1964 and making a big loss. Though Cleopatra is perceived widely to be the death stroke for this type of movie, TFOTRE was just as grand and opulent. It was off to a sticky wicket from the start, given that its contents held little relevance to the masses (clearly, the twin towers of God and Sex sell tickets, and this had neither), and consequently its ironic title referred not only to its subject matter but to the demise of the genre itself.

And yet it remains a thing of beauty, a folly of the celluloid world that contains an ensemble cast and a sweeping saga of no little grandeur. Anthony Mann, best known for his iconic Westerns, directed it. No doubt aided by his experience of filming vast expanses of empty country, he gave a great sense of scale to TFOTRE, entirely at home when depicting scenes in all-engulfing German forests, or the jungle of the Roman Senate. So much of this picture depended on size. In one memorable scene, the corpse of the old Emperor is laid to rest before an entire army. With snow billowing, the camera swoops over thousands of people, joined in the sort of collective mournathon for which Elton John might have composed the theme tune.

One of the academic problems with the film was that there is no easy way of defining the moment when the Roman Empire actually fell. Some might argue that it came with the sacking of Rome by the Ostrogoths in the fifth century, when the empire shifted wholesale to its new base in Constantinople and breathed for another millennia as Byzantium. Others suggest the rot started much, much earlier, that the seeds of destruction were already in place even before Rome became an Empire. It’s possible that Rome’s doom was spelled out as soon as someone demonstrated that whoever was in command of the army effectively controlled the state. Whatever. It’s a debate that has worked many brilliant minds, and will obviously do so forever because there’s no single answer. What counts here is the perspective the filmmakers took - they went for the reign of Commodus in the second century AD.

Why then? The movie implies this was a real turning point in Rome’s existence, that the Emperor Marcus Aurelius had declared the borders of the empire to be drawn, and that everyone inside those borders was to become a Roman citizen. Whether this actually happened at all is something of a historical debate, but the point is that Marcus Aurelius was in a position to guarantee freedom and harmony within the Empire, so that it was in better shape to face its foes - the Germans and the Persians. Unfortunately, the ageing Emperor died before he could turn his dream into policy, and when his son, Commodus took over, his subsequent folly led to a complete reversal of this way of thinking. Rome never returned to the hopes and visions of that time, and a series of despotic, short-sighted rulers gradually unravelled the Empire.

Stephen and Sophia try and act their way out of their chainsThe film opens in Germany, a lush and wintry carpet of trees dominated by the Roman fortress. Marcus Aurelius (played by Alec Guinness in typically brilliant, character-led mode) is preparing to announce his grand plan for Rome, and calls on the provincial princes and proconsuls to hear it. In a long-winded set piece, the Emperor meets and greets the lot of them, all driving chariots and dressed in what passes for a rough estimate of what they might have looked like. Omar Sharif pops up as an Armenian prince, wearing a pair of gold underpants - he’ll catch his death. The Emperor’s daughter is Sophia Loren, whose classical looks often lended themselves to such fare. Loren’s problem was that basically, she couldn’t act. Her attempts at dialogue had a Shatner-esque tendency to stop and start at no particular place, and in this film she uses two facial expressions - horrified, and melancholy with a hint of nobility. It doesn’t really matter of course. However you chose to look at her, Loren was an absolute babe in her prime and looked smashing as a decoration in ancient epics.

Her love interest is Livius, who in reality is Stephen Boyd. Making a name for himself as the baddie in Ben Hur, Boyd - actually from Northern Ireland - went all blond and blue-eyed to portray the utterly heroic commander of the Roman army. He spends his time lusting after Loren (who is about to be betrothed to Sharif - damn those political alliances!) and being offered the rule of Rome by Marcus Aurelius. As it happens, the fair-minded soldier is considered a more suitable candidate for pushing the Emperor’s vision than his own son, Commodus. Once the wiry Commodus (Christopher Plummer, who gives a blinding performance as someone losing his sanity as he gains ultimate power) finds out what is going happen, he sulks and struggles to maintain his friendship with Livius. When the latter leads the army into a battle against the Germans, Commodus and his fighting gladiator corps offer themselves as the sacrificial bait, the ones who’ll walk into a trap, draw the enemy out so that the bulk of the Roman forces can wade in afterwards.

Fortune doesn’t favour the brave. A bunch of prominent nobles realise that theirs will be a poor lot if Marcus Aurelius’s dream of a united Empire comes to fruition. They decide to see him off first, and in one of the picture’s best scenes, a blind aide hands the Emperor an apple that has been cut in half by a knife, one side of its blade secreting deadly poison. As the aide eats his unpoisoned half, Marcy Marcus chomps on the other, and the next we see of him is his prone form, as he struggles to get the word ‘Livius’ out, thus naming his successor.

It doesn’t happen. Commodus becomes Emperor, and Livius is left to smoulder his way through what remains of German resistance in the north. Needless to say, the new ruler is pretty crap, spending his time farting around with his gladiator mates and altering the images of divine statues so that they now bear his visage. The empire starts to fall apart. As Commodues levies higher taxes in an attempt to raise the money to transform Rome into a city of beauty, the east revolts, Livius is called to help and the plot turns a notch as he catches up with Loren, herself one of the rebels

All well and good, and indeed the massive, grinding story moves nicely when it’s not engaged in stately marches and processions that appear to be a ‘look at the money we spent on this!’ demonstration. You can, of course, recreate all this with CGI now, but until Rome it was hard to imagine the costs involved in recreating the Roman forum, which at the time was the largest movie set ever built. It’s a study in marble, brilliant and white and completely alien to anything we can see now. In the eastern scenes, ruined heads of statues lie in the sand, silently staring for eternity. The trouble is that as usual, there’s a great deal of marches and processions. We get to see just how much detail went into the costumes, and how blaring the orchestra gets, and maybe it happens once too often.

But naturally, movies like these were all about size. Everything had to be big, so that you can only imagine what it would have been like to sit in a cinema, staring goggle-eyed at the screen and havng your eardrums perforated by the sound of trumpets en masse. The story isn’t as pedestrian as it sounds either. Well, it is, but this is the grand sweep of history, and in a picture like this there was never going to be much room for subtlety. We all know Commodus is going to be a bad ‘un, and he is. We can see Livius has the weight of the world on his shoulders, and it doesn’t ever lift.

If the above sounds quite familiar, then sure, it was virtually ripped off by Gladiator, a film that is being described as one of the best in recent years. It isn’t. Apart from a riveting turn by Russell Crowe, its tale is as hackneyed as they get, with characters just as two-dimensional. If it appears superior to TFOTRE, then it’s because Crowe fills the screen in a way Boyd could only ever dream about. That apart, there’s no contest. Witness the very similar battle scenes that pretty much kick off the proceedings. In Gladiator, Crowe makes a stirring speech to his soldiers and off they go! In TFOTRE, tensions are already mounting between the protagonists as they slink into the forests, and whilst they make their way deeper in, it turns out the enemy are watching them, hidden behind every tree and just waiting for the call to attack. All the while, the score, which to this point was crashing and bombastic, slows and lessens to something as wistful as the cool breeze.

Sie Alec Guinness as Marcus AureliusGladiator shows Commodus as a more ruthless killer, one whose madness is equalled by his rising megalomania. Underneath, he’s a coward, and the bully in him rises to the surface a number of times, but the steel in him is clear to see. Plummer’s earlier take sees him start as an almost decent man. His father might not rate him, but all he’s really done wrong is take his duties not too seriously as the Emperor in waiting. He doesn’t kill Marcus Aurelius, but instead is installed as a puppet by greedy Senators who know too well that the old Emperor’s visions of a peaceful, non-expansionist Empire will curtail the regular income such people earned from battles and putting down revolts. Though Commodus is the ultimate power by the close of the movie, he has very little real might in actuality, flattered by those around him and willing in return to give them what they want. Nor is he a coward, being quite willing to enter the ring against Livius without delivering a fatal wound first.

Enough rambling about which was the better movie. It suffices me to say that Gladiator isn’t the only picture to have derived some inspiration from TFOTRE. The Phantom Menace borrowed heavily on much of its imagery, and certainly stole its musical highs and lows. There was also much of its style evident in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and I’d go so far as to suggest that Peter Jackson’s vision for that little-known bunch of flicks was made more realistic by the fact that the likes of The Fall of the Roman Empire showed what could be done if you simply thought big.

In my eyes, it’s a forgotten classic, the sort of thing I could snap up for a fiver on VHS twenty years ago. It’s also an imperfect movie, self-indulgent, slow and letting some poor performances slip through the net, including - sadly - those of the main actors. But there’s also so much that’s great about it. The sets, locations, costumes and the sheer imagination to create a film on such a grand scale is the sort of thing we see too little of these days. You have to admire the people involved for throwing so much cash at such a vanity project. Whatever else you may think about it, you have to admit that they don’t make ‘em like that anymore.

Posted on 6th May 2008
Under: Classics, Epics | 4 Comments »

Don’t believe your eyes

Confession time - I haven’t seen Gin gwai, the original version of The Eye, the Hong Kong horror classic that continued the tradition of the Far East being the place for fright flicks. It was the same with The Grudge; the first I knew of Takazi Shimizu’s endless cycle of strangely similar shockers was the Sarah Michelle Gellar update. Critically it was reviled; personally, I have never been so terrified by a simple piece of celluloid.

Perhaps I was hoping for more of the same with the American remake of The Eye. Its publicity, which promises a ‘Grudge-like’ experience was promising, and let’s face it watching Jessica Alba for 90 minutes isn’t the worst hardship one might come across. Of course it turned out to be clueless bobbins. For some reason, English language versions of Eastern horror films seem to believe that such elements as atmosphere are totally unnecessary, and as anyone who has seen Ringu or Dark Water knows (I at least caught the Japanese versions of these movies first) take that away and there’s next to nothing left.

What we get instead is CGI, and lots of it. ‘Throw money at the screen!’ the producers cry, forgetting conveniently that the 1999 remake of 1960s classic, The Haunting, fell on its expensive backside precisely because it showed us exactly the images we should have painted in our minds. Even the most gifted special effects experts appreciate that there is absolutely nothing they can conjure to match the power of the human imagination. That’s why a slow-burning, spooky atmosphere makes for great horror, and millions of dollars’ worth of computer generated animation looks like a dog’s dinner.

'What are we doing in this cack?'Then there’s the plot, which doesn’t end up making any sense. Things start well enough. Alba is Sydney, a young woman who’s been blind since a childhood accident robbed her of her sight. Having long since adjusted to her lot, Sydney has a life and is an accomplished concert violinist. It’s only at the insistence of her sister that she decides to undergo vision-restoring surgery, a process that involves using the corneas of a deceased donor. Following the operation, Sydney’s world is a blur initially, and though she sees things that shouldn’t be there, we get the sense that this might be a result of her eyes adjusting.

It isn’t, and what Sydney sees is dead people. Not only dead people, but the demons that guide them to the afterlife also. Back at her flat, she comes across a small child, who asks her if she has seen his report card. The kid’s dead, murdered by his father, meaning that Sydney witnesses ghosts from the distant past along with those who have only just demised. Alongside this are the disturbing dreams from someone else’s evidently tragic life, and the moments where a room from somewhere else melts into her own bedroom’s surroundings. Later still, Sydney finds that she can even see death before it strikes, and if that’s the case then she might also prevent it.

Confused? I know I was, and ultimately it seemed that there was very little logic to The Eye. If it was frightening, it went in, and that was about the extent of its rules. The ‘I see dead people’ shtick has been done elsewhere, and much better than this. A rehash of The Sixth Sense might not have been so bad, but then the movie changes tack entirely, suddenly reminding me of Adrian Lyne’s Jacob’s Ladder with its scary things that might just be okay once you get to understand them a little better. More than anything, though, its template is the aforementioned Grudge. Its aim is to strike fear into us, and everything is sacrificed to the God that is shock tactics. Forget things like narrative and atmosphere. All elements are subservient to the effort to slap as many scares on the screen as possible, and though you may have it that ultimately this is what horror is all about, the loser is the whole. Without any real structure or meaning, The Eye fails to possess any real worth. The first viewing might be a bit like a roller coaster ride. It’s fun. But when it comes to the second time, you know what’s coming, and the sudden lack of edge exposes its shallowness.

In the thick of it all is Alba, who does her best with the material. She isn’t helped by a terrible, nonsensical script, and the the dubbing of music over her violin playing - clearly all those lessons were for naught, Jessica - looks out of joint and frankly amateurish. A lack of confidence in the leading lady, perhaps, but Alba is some distance from being the worst thing on show here. Support is offered by Alessandro Nivola, playing an eye specialist who is naturally sceptical of Sydney’s supernatural peepers, until he, er, suddenly isn’t anymore. Neither sinks entirely under the weight of the bad material. Alba might be dismissed as a cutie, as too lightweight when it comes to taking the lead, but the more likely truth is that it’s simply a poor movie. She really isn’t bad, and neither are the jump cutting and sound work, which try to build some semblance of atmosphere. They need to, because it’s a quality that seems to have been omitted when it came to writing the screenplay.

Posted on 3rd May 2008
Under: Horror, Bobbins, Recent Releases | No Comments »

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