Tonight, mercy will be buried with the past.
It's directed by Roman Polanski, who has some considerable past he'd like to bury.
Facts of the Case
"A country in South America…after the fall of the dictatorship." The country goes unnamed, but the viewer can fill in a name that probably won't be far off the mark. (In fact, it might be a more challenging exercise to name a South American country whose history isn't reflected in the events described in this film.) It is a land where brutality and iron-fisted fascism have constituted the order of the day for as long as any of her citizens can recall.
Here Paulina Escobar (Sigourney Weaver, Heartbreakers, Holes) cowers in her beachfront home on the ragged sea coast, emotionally crippled by the torture and repeated rape she endured fifteen years ago when, as a member of the radical student resistance, she fell into the clutches of the secret police. So paranoid is Paulina today that when the electrical and telephone systems fail during a storm, she lights every candle in the house and locks herself in a back room with a book, her roast chicken dinner, and a pistol.
Paulina's husband Gerardo (Stuart Wilson, The Mask of Zorro, Vertical Limit), once the prince of the radicals, is now a prominent attorney who has just been appointed by the newly established democratic government to head a commission investigating the atrocities of the former regime. Paulina believes Gerardo has sold out his principles and will whitewash the evildoings; Gerardo, like all good sell-outs from every revolution, now believes one must go along to get along. On this stormy night, as rumors of his appointment leak to the press, Gerardo accepts a lift home from his broken-down car with a friendly passerby named Roberto Miranda (Ben Kingsley, Gandhi, Sexy Beast), a physician who hails Gerardo as a conquering hero.
Hearing the doctor's voice in her living room, Paulina is horrified. She's certain that Dr. Miranda is the evil man who viciously raped and assaulted her all those years ago—a man whose face she never saw, but whose idiosyncrasies of vocal inflection and expression haunt her nightmares. She destroys Miranda's car and takes him hostage at gunpoint, determined to wrest from his lips a confession of the misery she believes he inflicted on her. But is Miranda really Paulina's one-time nemesis? Gerardo, despite his wife's outrage, isn't so sure. With government agents arriving at dawn to escort Gerardo to his lofty new post, Paulina has only a handful of hours to exact her pound of flesh from the cultured, soft-spoken man she has already weighed in the balance of her mind, and pronounced guilty.
If asked to draw a parallel between Death and the Maiden and other films I've seen, my immediate response would be, "Extremities meets Deathtrap." Polanski's film shares with the former its basic premise elements: a victim of rape and torture seizes the chance to turn the tables on her attacker—at least, in this instance, a man she firmly believes is her attacker. With the latter film, Death and the Maiden shares its overt staginess and its claustrophobic, isolationist setting.
Unfortunately, like both of the aforementioned comparisons, Death and the Maiden is not a very good film. Extremities, wretched as it is, possesses the bravura (if grotesque) performance of Farrah Fawcett as a selling point. Deathtrap was at least sporadically funny, and offered a flicker or two of genuine surprise. Death and the Maiden is not the tiniest bit humorous, although it contains scattered odd moments where it seems to aspire to humor despite its grim subject matter. Nor is it at all surprising, though it seeks to be. And none of the three actors in this film offer anything approaching the wrenching catharsis of Fawcett's vengeful victim.
You've seen Sigourney Weaver and Ben Kingsley better elsewhere, in roles better suited to their talents. You've probably seen Stuart Wilson before too, but most likely wouldn't remember—he's that kind of serviceable but anonymous character actor whose face you dimly recognize but whose name escapes your memory. Weaver is miscast as the embittered woman tiptoeing the razor's edge of sanity. She never finds a believable tone for her character, waffling between wide-eyed goofiness and tight-lipped pseudo-intensity, and thus never convinces us. Weaver took a stronger tack on this sort of thing in Jon Amiel's thriller Copycat, but her role there called for more of the arrogant intellectualism that is Weaver's best hook—the kind of detached archness that served her well in pictures like The Ice Storm and Half Moon Street. Here she's simply mannered and shrill. The uncharacteristically hammy Kingsley at times appears to think this picture is a comedy, reading his lines like Alan Rickman's slick terrorist pretending to be a cowardly American office wonk in Die Hard. As the ineffectual lawyer/husband, Wilson fades into the scenery like an attendant lord. I can't envision this milquetoast rousing a crowd of rubber-chicken-sated Rotarians, much less as the firebrand leader of a band of rebellious anarchists.
I'm not sure whether to blame the actors for their tepid performances, or their director. I'm inclined to point the finger at both sides and let them duke it out among themselves. Polanski certainly knows how to wring suspense out of a well-crafted script—witness Chinatown and Rosemary's Baby—and even from a mediocre one, as in Frantic. But he seems rather at sea with Death and the Maiden, sacrificing subtlety for forehead-slapping obviousness and sincerity for soap opera. Polanski does little to breathe cinematic life into Ariel Dorfman and Rafael Yglesias' artificial and overwritten script (based on Dorfman's stage play), and fails to take advantage of the possibilities of its confined setting. Most disappointing is the fact that, while the central tension in the plot is supposed to arise from the uncertain identification of the accused villain, Polanski stages the action and guides the actors in such a blatant, clumsy way that even the most thick-skulled member of the audience will have accurately deduced the truth by the end of the first reel. This is a pedestrian effort by a director who's capable of greatness, as his recent Academy Award (for The Pianist) and previous Oscar nominations (for Chinatown and Tess) testify.
Generally one of the studios most skilled at presenting films on DVD, New Line appears to have been as bored by Death and the Maiden as this Judge was. The anamorphic transfer is, to be charitable, average at best. The color balance is off-kilter something fierce, veering heavily toward the red pole of the spectrum. As a result, the actors look flushed and faintly demonic throughout the picture. The transfer is also quite soft, lacking in crispness, contrast and depth. It's plagued by diffuse and shallow shadows—the death knell for a picture mostly shot in low light conditions. Evidence of slight print damage crops up frequently, though nothing shocking for a film of this age. On the plus side, I did not observe any serious compression flaws, and edge enhancement is applied with a sparing hand.
For a film named for a classical music standard, the stereo track behind Death and the Maiden must be branded woefully inadequate. I suppose the rationale may have been that this is a dialogue-driven film with few opportunities for aural thrills, but surely some improvement over the flat, tinny quality heard here wasn't beyond the realm of affordable reality. The lack of fullness in the track grates most in those rare moments—waves breaking on a rocky shore, an automobile crash—where something superior to soup cans and twine seems called for.
All we get in the area of supplements are a collection of widescreen trailers (for Bitter Moon, Invincible, Storytelling, and Human Nature, in addition to Death and the Maiden) and some DVD-ROM-activated links to New Line's website. A barely concealed Easter egg—one that will be old hat to viewers familiar with other New Line releases—yields a screenful of DVD credits.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Upon witnessing the elliptical ending of Death and the Maiden, I laughed out loud. Without giving anything away, I'll simply say this was one of the lamest, most pretentious conclusions to a major motion picture I've seen since Places in the Heart.
Lackluster melodrama masquerading as political allegory, courtesy of a director and stars who should have known better. Schubert no doubt flapjacked in his grave when this dull, obvious trifle was released. Viewers drawn to check out Death and the Maiden in the wake of Polanski's Oscar victory will walk away from it shaking their heads.
The Court finds Roman Polanski guilty of passive, heart-on-sleeve filmmaking, and would banish him from the country had another jurisdiction not already done the honors. Sigourney Weaver, Ben Kingsley, and Stuart Wilson are sentenced to 100 hours of community service at a local delicatessen, where they'll each serve up humongous slices of ham. Death and the Maiden is sentenced to a firing squad in Paraguay. We're adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: New Line
• Theatrical Trailer
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