Judge Matthew Schofield is welcomed into the Verdict family by John Malkovich. Rough start.
The Jungle offers incredible riches, but its price can be deadly.
Filming another version of Joseph Conrad's novel after Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now is a difficult act for any film to pull off, regardless of whether or not you're a more literal translation of the source material. Unfortunately, this version does not reach the heights of Coppola's masterpiece.
Facts of the Case
A trading company captain named Marlowe (Tim Roth, Pulp Fiction) is questioned by his superiors regarding his travels in the Congo in search of a missing ivory trader by the name of Kurtz (John Malkovich, Being John Malkovich). No one has laid eyes on him in nine months and rumors have spread that he has descended into madness. From there the film flashes back to Marlowe's journey by riverboat to the furthest reaches of colonized Africa. He is joined in his quest by a company guide, Mfumu (Isaach De Bankol, Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai), who is familiar with both the country they'll be traversing as well as Kurtz himself. The deeper they go, the more hostile the environment becomes, until they finally reach their destination and encounter Kurtz along with his followers and a king's ransom in ivory elephant tusks that Kurtz has seemingly be hoarding. It is here that Marlowe is faced with the titular darkness of humanity indicated in the title.
On paper, Heart of Darkness is a film with an impressive pedigree. The involvement of director Nicolas Roeg (Walkabout, Don't Look Now, and The Man Who Fell to Earth), along with Roth and Malkovich is significant considering this was a made-fo-TV movie from 1993. It's extra disappointing they couldn't produce a better result. Despite it being a faithful adaptation of the novel, you can feel the shadow of their predecessor looming over every frame. Just as one wouldn't dream of remaking Coppola's film (although, in this day and age, such a thing is increasingly and depressingly conceivable) it feels like this is doing just that: Trying to reinvent a story of which filmgoers are already familiar. We feel a tinge of guilt, but cannot help but compare Roth and Malkovich's performances to those of Martin Sheen and Marlon Brando; and, really, there simply isn't any comparison to be made.
Roth does decent work with the material he's given, but there are tonal shifts in his performance which are jarring. Part of the blame for this falls on Roeg himself. The story meanders along at a measured pace with the director often intercutting these passages of minimal action with shots of natives running through the woods and multiple flashbacks to scenes we have already witnessed. This slowness seems to permeate the actors themselves (Roth in particular).
The filmmakers were possibly aiming for some kind of slow burn affect, however it makes certain scenes come off as though the characters themselves are sleepwalking through portions of the film. This is particularly distracting during a sequence in which the riverboat comes under attack by natives who may or may not be at Kurtz's command. They shower the boat with arrows and spears, while Marlowe lazily wanders about the deck showing little to no concern. Everyone involved seems to have been directed to behave as though this were a mild inconvenience, rather than a life and death situation. Even when a prominent character is killed in the attack, Marlowe's reaction is one of bizarre indifference. Once they arrive at Kurtz's station, Marlowe is in possession of a thousand yard stare that seems abruptly adopted to suit the script rather than developed by a harrowing journey. With a runtime of only 100 minutes, it severely truncates the journey Marlowe takes to find Kurtz and could explain Roth's shifts in tone. In the end, Roth never finds comfort with the role and the character of Marlowe suffers as a result.
Malkovich gives Heart of Darkness a much needed boost, towards the end, when he finally makes an appearance. His Kurtz is emaciated and offers a strong depiction of a once sharp mind now in decline, but not without glimmers of the cultured man he once was. Malkovich is given some regrettable babble, which he gets through like a true professional. While this reviewer finds some of his mannerisms cloying in certain roles, here he brings a zonked-out spaciness to Kurtz which seems much closer to Conrad's intent than Brando's interpretation of the character.
The supporting cast is well rounded with recognizable character actors. Isaach De Bankole (Casino Royale) brings a nice depth to the underwritten role in Mfumu the guide. James Fox (Sherlock Holmes) as Gosse, a station chief; Peter Vaughan (Brazil), as the Company director questioning Marlowe; and Ian McDiarmid (Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace) in a brief cameo as a company doctor all make good impressions.
The 1.33:1 full frame standard def transfer is solid, but nothing you'd show off. For a TV movie that's over 20 years old ,it looks as good as you could hope for with the format and you'll likely never see it look better. The Dolby 2.0 Stereo track does what it needs to and nothing more.
The DVD is part of the Warner Archive Collection which means we get zilch in terms of extras. Nothing so much as even a chapter listing is available, though you can skip ahead during playback itself. The main menu has only one option: Start the film. The menu image is just the water tower with the Warner Bros logo. Apparently, the studio couldn't take the time to find so much as a screenshot from the film itself to place there, and put as little effort into this release as one could possibly muster.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Despite these issues, there are elements to admire in Heart of Darkness. For a TV movie on a limited budget, the cinematography shot in Belize is well done and atmospheric. In addition to a strong performance by Malkovich, the supporting cast commendably picks up the slack on a script which tries to cram too much into too short a runtime.
Early on, Marlowe mentions that Kurtz' words would "last with him the rest of his days." It's unlikely Heart of Darkness will have a similar effect on viewers. For fans of Conrad's novel, this is an adequate purchase. For anyone else, it'll be disappointing.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
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