Thursday, January 21, 2010
Between What Is Said And What Is Done
Next on the list of films I should have seen long ago but only got to now is GORKY PARK, the Michael Apted thriller released way back in December 1983. I’m going to take a wild guess that it didn’t really interest me at the time. Looking at it now makes it clear that it’s the sort of commercial film that studios unfortunately aren’t very interested in making anymore and I’m not talking about how it’s set behind the iron curtain. It’s very much a thriller for adults without the need to dumb things down, one that contains gripping action but is in no way an action movie and the intricate plotting doesn’t rush things leading to an end which may not be perfect but is still somewhat satisfying. The equivalent film made now might possibly rework the plot to up the stakes considerably as well as upping the quotients on violence and sleaze—and there is some sex in GORKY PARK already. Or it would go the opposite route and go for the prestige of making an ‘adult’ film, taking a more serious approach and therefore placing the whole thing more in line with the awards race—as it was, the closest the film came was a deserved Golden Globe nomination for female lead Joanna Pacula. The approach used by GORKY PARK, a fairly early Orion release, seems to place it stylistically between the 70s and the 80s styles, caught between being character based and the more expected elements from the genre, making for an interesting mix. It gets points for having its American characters play supporting to Russian at the height of the cold war, something which makes the dramatics more complex than it would have otherwise and the way the story develops reveals more of itself as it goes on. I’m tempted to just look at the whole thing as a nicely put together airplane read though there are a few more layers to it than just that. At its best it’s a very good film which gains in substance both as it goes on and after it ends.
When three dead bodies are found in Moscow’s Gorky Park, Soviet police inspector Arkady Renko (William Hurt) is assigned to investigate which he does so reluctantly due to his belief he expresses to trusted prosecutor Iamskoy (Ian Bannen) that the KGB may somehow be involved and he doesn’t like the thought that he’s being set up as a fall guy. But he nevertheless begins his investigation, which leads to beautiful Irina Asanova (Joanna Pacula) a mysterious young woman with a connection to powerful American businessman (Lee Marvin). When another American, New York Police Investigator William Kirwill (Brian Dennehy) expresses his own interest in the case Renko begins to realize how wide the conspiracy is but as his attraction to Irina grows he begins to find himself in danger as well.
Michael Apted is kind of a nightmare for people trying to look at director’s careers in an auteurist sense with a filmography that includes his famous UP series, biopics seemingly designed to get Oscar nominations for actors, comedies with the likes of John Belushi (CONTINENTAL DIVIDE) and Richard Pryor (CRITICAL CONDITION), as well as the 1999 James Bond film THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH. He currently has the third NARNIA film coming up and throughout his career there have been films that in their aim to be extremely serious have come off as many a little too stuffy. It’s easy to imagine a version of GORKY PARK which might have been that as well but even though it goes on maybe a few minutes too long it holds together very well and the director’s best work here is very good indeed. With a screenplay by Dennis Potter (PENNIES FROM HEAVEN) based on the novel by Martin Cruz Smith, GORKY PARK manages to overcome several points which otherwise would defeat a lesser film. William Hurt, complete with accent, is certainly not the most convincing Russian ever seen but it certainly helps that he’s a good enough actor to overcome this and the film has the confidence to make his accent fairly light so it’s not really much of an issue. There’s also the more problematic matter of having everyone speak English which wouldn’t be noticeable if everyone in the film were Russian—after all, we could just pretend they were speaking English—but when Americans played by Marvin and Dennehy turn up language is never even mentioned and when Hurt writes things down it’s in Russian with subtitles used which just muddies things. Maybe people didn’t think about this sort of thing as much at the time. Still, under Apted’s clearheaded direction and Potter’s page-turner of a script GORKY PARK remains both gripping and entertaining all the way through with enough complexity to correctly address the seriousness of it while still not making it too much of a polemic. Unlike any number of thrillers of this type the plotting never becomes overly convoluted yet it avoids the feeling that it’s trying to dumb things down. It’s an intriguing combination of cold-war politics, action scenes and a plot which is continually adding new elements, best encapsulated in how Lee Marvin’s powerful presence in the story grows as it goes on.
With the appropriately snowbound Helsinki subbing for Moscow (that huge mural of Lenin seen certainly helps the illusion) the film avoids becoming too grim by adding drops of wit throughout—even from Marvin—but even these touches are never allowed to overtake the chilly atmosphere that is so necessary. And it succeeds as an intelligent mystery that keeps things complex but still clear enough that it’s not a reach that Hurt is able to put things together—indeed, part of the plot is that certain people almost need him to—and it never does so in a way that feels like he’s accidentally stumbling into answers in order to dumb things down. What’s going on is just as simple as the dominoes he’s trying to put together in one scene yet, as things often are in life, much more complex as well which he seems to be very aware of. It’s easy to imagine another version of the story which makes the Brian Dennehy character the lead in a BLACK RAIN-type scenario which would simplify the politics—the Russians would just be made to be the ‘other’ and let us off the hook as the maverick cop goes barreling through Moscow intent on revenge, an idea it actually briefly touches on. Here, it’s the level-headed person who is the lead and he’s the one who needs to decide how much good that approach in life is really doing him. For the most part it all flows together very well though it could have used some tightening as it approaches the third act. Random rule that I guess I made up: If a film runs two hours and change, you could probably lose those few minutes to get it down to two hours and tighten things up a little (even so, one character’s exit feels unsatisfying though I don’t have a good solution to that). With a running time of 126 minutes, GORKY PARK seems to fall into that category.
Putting the politics of the day aside, the one thing which really strands GORKY PARK in its time period is the score by James Horner. It starts off in a sparse, evocative manner but soon incorporates a few too many 80s synths, not to mention that steel drum action thing that Horner used in all his urban-action efforts of the decade including 48 HRS., COMMANDO and RED HEAT—really, they all just wind up sounding like the same thing. If I were being chased through city streets to this music then, yes, it would be kind of cool but it still feels a little out of place here when compared to those more action oriented films. Regardless, the standoff climax shrewdly plays out with no score (I miss that sort of thing), which is allowed to remain tense from hearing not much more than the wind blowing through the trees in the woodsy surroundings and the entire sequence, extremely well-staged by Apted, succeeds admirably. The story pays off in the end, but the romance and political angle don’t work quite as well. I get the feeling it wants to be CASABLANCA in the end which it’s not, of course, and though it falls short in that goal I suppose there are far worse things you could say about a film’s ending than that it isn’t as good as CASABLANCA. Ultimately, the thriller elements of GORKY PARK work better than when it attempts to be a serious meditation on people trapped behind the iron curtain but overall the film succeeds as just the sort of adult thriller that, well, doesn’t get made much anymore.
William Hurt’s subtle work overcomes the accent issue very quickly (frankly, with multiple Brits playing the Russians, this isn’t a film to look for appropriate accents from anyone, except maybe Brian Dennehy) and his earnest nature becomes likable, particularly the way he freely tells Marvin in one scene, “I always wanted to meet an American.” He’s one of the key reasons why the film gains in resonance as it goes on—like the film, his cool exterior eventually gives way to something that has more going on underneath. Maybe if there’d been more films like this one out there the actor wouldn’t have gone off and disappeared for a few years or whatever it was he did. The off-kilter casting of Lee Marvin works very well—it’s the sort of role that might have been more expected from the likes of Richard Widmark in his COMA period but Marvin makes it so you never know what to expect from him in his three-piece suits and he’s very intimidating as he stares down Hurt, as if studying him to prepare for the kill. Suddenly Lee Marvin has become more threatening just sitting at a table wearing a suit than he ever was during a long career of holding a gun. Even though he died less than four years later, there’s still a great deal of power that he brings to even minor moments throughout and is one of the best performances from the latter part of his career. There’s also solid work by the supporting cast that includes Brian Dennehy (sarcastically calling Hurt’s character ‘Boris’ on occasion), Ian Bannen, Richard Griffiths and the forever icy Ian “Senator Palpatine” McDiarmid who provides much of the film’s levity as the sardonic Professor Andreev, the anthropologist who helps restore the mutilated faces of the victims. And there’s Joanna Pacula, a beauty who never seems to have had the career she might have had based on her excellent performance this film, though she has worked here and there through the years. She’s very beautiful with a lithe vulnerability yet she doesn’t come off as a supermodel playing a film role. Maybe that’s why she never got a Bond girl-sort of part but it certainly adds to her effectiveness here. There’s enough of a Nastassia Kinski resemblance to make it not much of a surprise that Polanski recommended her for the part as reported in a Time magazine profile on the actress way back in 1983. Casting the unknown paid off and it seems a shame that she never got such a good part again, displaying a maturity beyond her years as well as possessing a relatable type of beauty which keeps her from seeming out of place, a rarity for these types of movies.
And, yes, there is a sex scene complete with nudity from Pacula about which I have no complaints but since it seems to happen more because it was expected from this type of film (maybe cashing in on Hurt’s BODY HEAT success) than anything to do with the vulnerability of the characters it winds up making me think of the movie as more of a commercial thriller than anything else. GORKY PARK tries to combine those genre elements with a would-be serious look at life behind the iron curtain, culminating in a ‘one day we’ll be free’ metaphor along with a standard ‘corruption is everywhere’ theme about taking sides in the cold war. It’s as if the film is unwilling to admit that it’s, well, ‘just’ a thriller but in spite of its seriousness it ultimately does feel like more of a straight genre piece than, say, THE LIVES OF OTHERS turned out to be a few years ago (actually, that sounds like an interesting double bill). Of course, there’s nothing wrong with a movie that’s ‘just’ a thriller and there’s nothing particularly wrong with GORKY PARK either. As the credits roll and that damn (but admittedly pretty cool) James Horner steel drum music returns again it feels like the movie wants to say yeah, we know this was more about the chases and mystery, not the political message, and that satisfaction is what we’re ultimately left with. Even if its setting is now one that lies in the past the mystery remains strong and the film plays well, a work of intelligence that doesn’t need to account for itself at all.