How is this independent drama about an ivory trading station in 1920's Borneo like 2001: A Space Odyssey? Ask Judge Diane Wild... hey, wake up, Diane!
"As long as you stay in the station, you'll be OK."
There are films I really want to like, because they have obvious intelligence and passion behind them, because they bend the conventions of the Beautiful People movies we're so used to from Hollywood, because they are well crafted by artists who are not keeping one eye on the marketability of their product. The Intended is one of these movies. It grabbed me from the opening scenes with its beauty, thoughtfulness, and outstanding performances by Real People actors willing to take risks. I really, really wanted to like it. I didn't.
Facts of the Case
Young surveyor Hamish (JJ Feild, Poirot: Death on the Nile) and his older "intended," Sarah Morris (Janet McTeer, Tumbleweeds), arrive at a remote ivory trading station in Borneo in 1924. They are greeted by the imposing station manager Mrs. Jones (Brenda Fricker, My Left Foot), who at first refuses to give Hamish his promised up-front money on the work he is about to undertake—going deep into the jungle with a group of natives to survey for a new road, which the creepily isolated station sorely needs. She is also not happy to learn that the couple are merely engaged, not married, so she houses them with the station's priest.
Her son, William Jones (Tony Maudsley, Vanity Fair), is a fey, overgrown child of about 35 with a bizarre relationship with his nanny, Erina (Olympia Dukakis Mr. Holland's Opus). On the boat that brought Hamish and Sarah—on a river that disappears 6 months of the year, leaving everyone trapped until the rains come—came William's passport and his means of escape from the oppressive station. However, on the day of his departure, his mother refuses to let him go. Tensions mount, and to say much more would ruin the plot points of a movie that relies on them to build that necessary tension.
"You have to get away from here," the priest warns the couple at one point during the dry season.
"How?" Sarah asks.
"I don't know," he replies bleakly.
Director and co-writer Kristian Levring was part of the original Dogme 95 movement, which espoused a philosophy of minimalism. Though this film is not in the Dogme style, there is a sparsity to it, from the makeup and costume design, to the script, to the unobtrusive direction—clever camera angles don't distract from the story and the characters, but the occasional interesting shot adds to the visual style of this stylized movie. Voyeurism is a recurring theme, with William spying on the couple on their arrival, for example, and the camera creates an intimate scene for the audience, drawing us into William's perspective by peeking through a peephole in the wall.
The characters are played by actors of such power that they convince us of their realism despite some ludicrous events. The women are particularly strong—McTeer, Fricker, and Dukakis as actors, but also their characters, who drive the story. There are rare—very rare—moments of humor, and occasional bawdiness to dispel the tragic atmosphere of the film. In fact, it is the arrival of Sarah and Hamish, whose overt sexuality contrasts to the repression of the station, that triggers the descent into greed, madness, murder, and betrayal.
There's a literary quality to The Intended, reminiscent of the spare bleakness of Chinua Achebe's "Things Fall Apart" or Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness." And like those stories, we feel the inevitable pull of sinister forces on the characters. Where The Intended disappointed me was in the last third or so. Before that, the low-level tension kept me fascinated, but at some point we realize where the characters are headed, and then it's like watching a train wreck in slow motion. Only a really quiet train wreck, with no explosions or loud noises of any kind. And very, very slow motion.
This is a character-driven movie rather than a plot-driven one, which is generally a good thing in my review book. There's no twist ending uncovered too soon, no clichéd ending that disappointed me. But somewhere in that last third, the characters lost their hold on me. Some of their actions stemmed from forces beyond their control, but neither the characters nor the forces were quite compelling enough to keep me hooked. It turns out what had been keeping me interested was the subtle mystery of who these people are and what their motivations were. Once their paths became clear, the spell was broken and I found it hard to stay interested.
Or awake. I feel guilty saying that, but most times, I must be hermetically sealed in a completely dark, soundproof, precisely temperature-controlled room to even think about falling asleep. I very rarely nod off while watching films (2001: A Space Odyssey is the only other one that comes to mind. Please don't hate me). I nodded off during The Intended. I didn't even think I was tired.
The extras are not particularly exciting either. The original theatrical trailer and director filmography are the kind of items that studios want us to believe are bonuses, but are really just padding so there can be more than one selection in the Special Features menu. The one substantial item is a series of short interviews with individual members of the cast, including co-star and co-writer McTeer as well as Feild (whose name is variously spelled Feild and Field on the DVD, but Feild seems to be the winner), Dukakis, and Levring. Sadly, the interviews are very choppy and not particularly insightful. Each 3-4 minute interview is broken up with title screens of the question the actor is responding to, followed by a few seconds of a response, often cut off mid-sentence.
Shot on digital video, The Intended is inexplicably presented here in full screen ratio. This may be an erroneous assumption, but the movie seems likely to appeal to the more seasoned (and well rested) film aficionado—the same people who are perhaps more likely to decry the full screen format. Some shots are either poorly cropped or oddly framed to begin with, such as one of Hamish and Sarah looking at the stars, where part of Hamish's head is cropped off. Though the picture seems a bit soft at times, the color is beautiful and showcases the verdant jungle setting as well as the filthy drought conditions to full advantage. The Dolby Digital 2.0 sound does the trick, conveying dialogue clearly and making good use of the atmospheric jungle sounds. If there really had been a train wreck in this film, it might not be an adequately robust track, but for such a quiet movie, it's more than fine.
Even though The Intended didn't capture me to the very end, I can't dismiss the film as completely unworthy of your DVD rental dollars. The acting is phenomenal, and the characterizations are intelligent. Those qualities alone make it stand above many lesser films, and when you add its literate script and lush scenery, it's almost a winner. Unfortunately, you may not be alert enough to appreciate its finer qualities by the closing credits.
I just can't say "not guilty" to a film that put me to sleep. But I feel really badly about it.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: New Video
• Cast interviews
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