Danton is the first French-language film by Polish filmmaker Andrzej Wajda, directing, in the wake of recent tragic events in his homeland, a historical film about the French Revolution. Pic is a dull, plodding affair, resembling more a windy, biased history lecture than a dramatic motion picture. Too often it has the characteristic gloss of French costume television drama, in which roles and outfits are filled but not lived in.
The script is based, ironically, on a Polish play of the 1930s [Stanislawa Przybyszewska’s The Danton Affair], which Wajda (who commutes back and forth from cinema to theatre) has staged several times. Like the play, the film limits itself to the climactic death struggle between the two titans of the Revolution, Georges Danton and Maximilian Robespierre, and attempts to dramatize their emotional, intellectual and political differences.
Action opens in November, 1793, with Danton returning to Paris from his country retreat upon learning that the insidious Committee of Public Safety, under Robespierre’s incitement, has begun a massive series of executions, The Terror. Confident in the people’s support, Danton locks horns with his former ally, but the calculating Robespierre soon rounds up Danton and his followers, tries them before a revolutionary tribunal and dispatches them to the guillotine.
The acting barely improves matters and Wajda has sometimes cast poorly. Gerard Depardieu is Danton: huff and puff as he may, he still looks uneasy in period costume and powdered wig, and his gestures and mannerisms are resolutely 20th century. Wojciech Pszoniak, a fine Polish actor of commanding presence, looks right as the cold, conniving Robespierre, but the dubbed voice that issues from his mouth saps his performance.
The supporting roles vary from fair to poor, with German actress Angela Winkler (also dubbed) miscast as Lucile Desmoulins, the wife of the Dantonist journalist, Camille Desmoulins (played competently by wunderkind stage director Patrice Chereau).