Sunday, November 27, 2005

The Bridge of San Luis Rey (2004)

A Film Review

Copyright Dragan Antulov 2005

The old adage about good literature being adapted into bad films and vice versa could be applied even to Pulitzer Award-winning novels. In case of Thornton Wilder's THE BRIDGE OF SAN LUIS REY, there were two Hollywood adaptations - made in 1929 and 1944 - proving this point. In 2001 the novel was quoted by Tony Blair during his speech about 9-11 attacks and this probably served as an impetus for a consortium of European film companies to try a third version. The result of their effort, 2004 drama written and directed by Irish playwright Mary McGuckian, could be best described as "third time - not a charm".

The plot is set in early 18th Century Peru. Brother Juniper (played by Gabriel Byrne), a Franciscan monk, is a witness to a terrible tragedy. A ancient Inca rope bridge he was about to cross only minutes later suddenly fails, leading five people to their deaths. Brother Juniper is shocked by the incident and spends next few years collecting any conceivable bit of information about victims, trying to find whether there was some higher purpose in their deaths. Results of his findings are collected in the book whose conclusions aren't particularly liked by Church authorities embodied in Archbishop of Lima (played by Robert de Niro). Brother Juniper is tried for heresy and during the trial he tells about the incident victims and their lives.

With 24 million US$ of budget, THE BRIDGE OF SAN LUIS REY was one of the more expensive European films of recent times. Its price tag can be seen not only in cast that includes such big Hollywood names like de Niro, Harvey Keitel or Kathy Bates, but also in elaborate recreation of early 18th Century through costumes and other period details (with Spanish locations being good ersatz for Peru). Unfortunately, all that splendour does poor job of hiding the emptiness of characters and pedestrian pace of the film. While some actors fare relatively well in their struggles with poorly written roles, Gabriel Byrne kills any enthusiasm for the story with his slow and flat narration. In the end, although watchable, THE BRIDGE OF SAN LUIS REY leaves audience with the same unanswered question as the one asked by its narrator.

RATING: 4/10 (+)


Anonymous Anonymous said...

As I left the theater in which I had just seen " ... San Luis Rey," I overheard some wag say 'Kathy Bates must need the money.' I don't think it's that simple. She is without a doubt one of our great character actresses, as different from Glenn Close,Meryl Streep, Jessica Lange, Susan Sarandon, her contemporaries and closest artistic peers, as each of them is from her. Kathy Bates never started out as a love interest, a glamor girl, and was never offered the kind of roles that propelled all those women into the best of their age groups and allowed them a certain smooth rite of passage from glamor girl to middle age, that most rocky of roads for women everywhere, but for actresses, well, depending on what vicissitudes they triumphed over or not in their teens and twenties, could prove to be their own personal bridge over the San Luis Rey. Not her though. She went after the best roles she was offered, a chancy affair at best. The Client, Country, Adaptation, Dangerous Liaisons were all given to those other ladies and were roles Kathy Bates could have played to a fare-thee-well. Nothing she ever did or will do will compare with the failure of this film. Deserted by an adaptation that would be rejected by any junior high film club, murdered by the ponderous speechifying of Byrne, de Niro and Abraham, all of whom seemed to have wandered in from some other movies,it is only she who seems to have some idea of what she is to do to keep her audience with her, if nothing else than to provide an anchor of capability in a quagmire of question marks. Pity. The book is as close to great as Wilder ever got and he and his marvelous premise have been squandered three times by these American, despite the Euro, financing, versions. I have a feeling though he would have given Kathy Bates high marks which may not count for much given what she's done in the past and will do again. For actors, some movies are what they want to distance themselves from. And fast. And us too.

-Michael Kanter L/MSW
Nov. 10, 2006


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