Sony // 1982 // 102 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // March 3rd, 2009
A deformed bellringer. An exotic dancer. A naughty Archdeacon. A romantic poet. A tragic story.
"She gave me water!"
In 15th Century Paris, a freak of nature has been born. The young child is so horribly deformed that most are convinced that it must be some sort of demon. The child was abandoned by his mother, who left the baby on the steps of the cathedral. The child is found by some nuns, who suggest that it should be burned. Dom Claude (Derek Jacobi, Dead Again), the Archdeacon, steps in to offer the child mercy. "The poor that we shelter on this earth shall become our treasures in heaven," he reasons. Dom Claude gives the child the name Quasimodo, and determines to make the boy his ward.
Fast-forward 25 years. Dom Claude is still Archdeacon and is still looking after Quasimodo (Anthony Hopkins, Titus). The deformed child has grown into a deformed man. His hunchback is one of the most-reviled sights in Paris, and his eye is covered with warts and sores. His teeth are crooked, and almost all of his features are horribly distorted. The public views Quasimodo as a monster. Even so, Quasimodo still manages to find some joy in life. Dom Claude has given him the job of being the cathedral bell-ringer. Quasimodo may be ugly and in terrible pain, but his heart soars when he climbs to the top of the cathedral and rings the bells.
One day, some church officials catch a gypsy named Esmeralda (Lesley Anne-Down, The Great Train Robbery) dancing in the street. For ridiculous reasons, the church officials accuse Esmeralda of witchcraft. They bring her to Dom Claude, and fully expect him to have the girl burned at the stake. Dom Claude has a rather cruel streak, and under most circumstances he surely would have executed the girl. This time, however, he found his heart filled with lust. He found Esmeralda the most beautiful girl he had ever seen, and ordered her release. A few days later, the dancer is captured again on similar charges. Dom Claude suddenly has an idea. He will offer Esmeralda sanctuary inside his cathedral. If she accepts, he can force her to become his lover. If she refuses, she will be executed. Much to Dom Claude's surprise, Esmeralda attempts to run. The Archdeacon sends Quasimodo after her, but Esmeralda escapes and Quasimodo is arrested for attempting to kidnap a helpless woman.
Esmeralda returns to her gypsy camp, which is ruled by Clopin Trouillefou (David Suchet, Iron Eagle). When Esmeralda returns, Clopin is planning to execute a kind-hearted poet named Pierre (Gerry Sundquist, Meetings with Remarkable Men) for trespassing on gypsy territory. Esmeralda feels pity for the poet, and rescues him by volunteering to become his wife. Of course, it won't be a serious marriage. Esmeralda has no romantic feelings for Pierre, but instead lusts after a rakish military captain named Phoebus (Robert Powell, King of Kings). Esmeralda shows pity a second time when she enters the town and sees Quasimodo being whipped for his "crimes." Quasimodo cries out for a drink of water, and is mocked by the townsfolk. Esmeralda rushes to him and offers the tortured man a drink. It is but a small act of kindness, but it affects Quasimodo profoundly. From that day forward, he is willing to die for the beautiful Esmeralda. Will Quasimodo be able to find some kind of happiness in the wake of being abandoned by his master? Will Esmeralda be able to escape the increasingly nasty and diabolical advances of Dom Claude? Will Pierre be able to prove that he is a superior option to the lustful Phoebus?
A truly faithful adaptation of Victor Hugo's The Hunchback of Notre Dame has yet to be made. I suspect that it will never be made. The sheer scope of the story requires a great deal of money, and the dark horrors of Hugo's novel are perhaps too disturbing and unhappy to be included in a mainstream motion picture. This 1982 television adaptation of the story is yet another version that shys away from the less palatable elements of the story, coming to an abrupt and phony conclusion that feels rather unconvincing, even in contrast to the gentler 1996 Disney adaptation (a great film in its own way). The fact that the ending concludes the film on a sour note is kind of shame, because it's a pretty solid film up until that point.
The cast here is simply superb, and they lend these roles a wonderful depth and complexity. Anthony Hopkins provides a very moving take on Quasimodo, veering back and forth between confused lunacy and tender understanding. For the majority of the film, Hopkins is limited to raving, laughing, and saying his own name monotonously. After a while, we begin to wonder whether there are any lights on in the building. Then the film surprises us with a brief yet lovely scene in which Quasimodo manages enough lucidity to express the true depth of his feelings. It's played beautifully by Hopkins, who demonstrates once again what a truly versatile actor he is.
A series of superb actors flesh out the supporting cast. The best performance probably comes from Derek Jacobi as the Archdeacon, who becomes increasingly fascinating as he allows his lustful impulses to drive him to murderous behavior. Early on, Jacobi attempts to find spiritual loopholes in order to preserve the status quo of his relationship with God, but by the conclusion he would sign a pact with Satan in order to gain Esmeralda's affection. David Suchet and Robert Powell bring a quiet playfulness to their roles. Powell is particularly funny during a scene in which he unsuccessfully attempts to bed Esmeralda. John Gielgud has a creepy cameo as a bishop with a torture fetish, and Lesley-Anne Down proves that she can capably hold her own in such remarkable company.
The period design is fairly impressive, even if it does fall into the category of, "period films that look so much like Monty Python and the Holy Grail that you keep thinking about Monty Python jokes throughout the entire film." Ken Thorne provides an appropriately liturgical score that adds to the film nicely, and director Michael Tuchner successfully compresses a lot of plot development into 102 minutes without making the movie feel too rushed. The end is bad, perhaps spectacularly bad, but I do think the merits of the rest of the film are considerable enough to outweigh the poor conclusion.
The transfer is very unimpressive, with lots of grain, scratches and flecks. Darker scenes are very murky and occasionally incomprehensible. The image seems very dirty and washed-out, and it seems that very little work has been put into restoring the film. For some inexplicable reason, a genuinely wretched-looking image has been chosen as the background for the DVD menu. The audio is rather unimpressive, with dialogue occasionally getting drowned out by sound design. The music suffers from some damage and distortion. There are no extras on the disc.
The ending, the transfer, and the lack of extras are a liability. Even so, the performances of Hopkins and Jacobi are right on the money, and they deserve to be remembered. Give this one a rental.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (French)
Running Time: 102 Minutes
Release Year: 1982
MPAA Rating: Not Rated