The story that defied Orson Welles (who abandoned it to make “Citizen Kane”) and challenged Francis Ford Coppola finally reaches the screen, more or less intact, with a Turner TV pic directed by Nicolas Roeg in a good, if unexpected, match of director and material. Film, which should do well in college campus-area rentals, cries for a larger screen.
John Malkovich toplines as Kurtz (portrayed by Marlon Brando in Coppola’s adaptation, “Apocalypse Now.”) That 1979 pic updated and relocated Conrad’s 1902 novella — widely read by college students — to the Vietnam war. Roeg and scripter Benedict Fitzgerald take it back to the late 19th-century Belgian Congo.
Story is told in flashback by haggard sailor Marlow (Tim Roth), reporting back to the directors of an unnamed Belgian company whose business entails African exploration and the “harvesting” of natural resources.
As a fresh-faced and enthusiastic merchant seaman, Marlow had accepted the company’s invitation to mount an expedition up the Congo River to find Kurtz, chief of the firm’s most remote Inner Station, who hasn’t been seen for several months.
Is he dead, or is he (as rumored) hoarding an enormous cache of ivory? Previous attempts to find Kurtz have failed, and Marlow and his crew meet a harrowing series of mysterious, often fatal setbacks that may be accidents or may be deliberate obstacles set by their target or his near-reverent followers.
Roeg and Fitzgerald do what they can to preserve Conrad’s almost mystic vision; Kurtz, in self-imposed exile, remains nothing if not enigmatic.
“Great music no longer sings,” he tells Marlow, as he dispassionately snaps the neck of a pet monkey. “I built a desolate place for myself … I was on the threshold of great things.”
Later, Marlow attempts to explain to the company director (John Savident), “Kurtz was an artist, at war with every aspect of life he knew.”
The film is expertly and precisely cast, blending familiar feature-level faces Malkovich and James Fox with veteran Brit actors and (in a cameo) Somalian model Iman.
All turn in good performances, though Malkovich and Morten Faldaas’ hammy turns won’t let anyone forget Brando and Dennis Hopper in “Apocalypse.”
Look of film is rich, lit with appropriate murkiness by Anthony Richmond at various London and Belize locations. Production design (Paul J. Peters), sets (Amy Wells) and costumes (Robert Iannaccone) are all top-notch.