Shot in 1994, this third official bigscreen version of Joseph Conrad’s “Victory” is not quite as bad as its unreleased status would indicate, but it does have little to offer as a commercial attraction for modern audiences. Caught at its sole Cannes market screening at fest’s end, this elaborate international co-production possesses the same ponderous, literary quality of numerous mid-’60s roadshow attractions, including “Lord Jim” for starters; except for the cast, it looks as though it could have been made then. As its long shelf life would indicate, B.O. prospects are bleak, since without good reviews or major marquee names, it has no selling points for either the upscale or general public.
Conrad’s classic, about a European misfit living alone in the Dutch East Indies who falls in love with an itinerant musician and must then defend his island homestead against three insidious intruders, was filmed beautifully in 1919 by Maurice Tourneur and in OK fashion in 1940 by John Cromwell. Highlights of both pics were the brilliant characterizations of the villainous, woman-hating Mr. Jones, first by Lon Chaney, then by Cedric Hardwicke. William Wellman directed a very loose adaptation, “Dangerous Paradise,” in 1930.
In his second film as a director after the 1991 “Afraid of the Dark” and a writing career that included winning an Oscar for “The Last Emperor,” Mark Peploe hews more closely to the novel than did the tidied-up earlier versions, although that doesn’t count for a whole lot in light of his sluggish pacing and use of sporadic narration to patch over transitions and explain the hero’s interior state.
With a ship’s captain (Bill Paterson) recounting the tale, Axel Heyst (Willem Dafoe) is seen turning up in the port town of Surabaya in 1913 for a stay at a colonial hotel run by the disagreeable, racist German Schomberg (Jean Yanne). Every night, the European businessmen in their white linen suits are entertained by an all-femme orchestra led by an oily gent (Simon Callow in a nice bit) who eventually succumbs to the aggressive Schomberg’s request that he “sell” him one of his pretty musicians, Alma (Irene Jacob).
The desperate young woman pleads with the taciturn Heyst to help her escape these two loathsome men, and after initially refusing, he abruptly changes hismind, spiriting her away to his remote island, where he lives alone at the site of a formerly prosperous mine with a native manservant, Wang (Ho Yi). Although Heyst at first insists to Alma that their relationship will be strictly platonic, it doesn’t take long for that to change.
Always suspicious and resentful of Heyst, Schomberg at length concocts a scheme for revenge for the theft of Alma. The arrival of the sinister Mr. Jones (Sam Neill), along with two cretinous henchmen, has seriously disrupted the propriety of his establishment, turning it into a gambling den. In order to get rid of them, he suggests that Jones head for Heyst’s island, where a fortune may just be waiting to be plucked.
Final act is devoted to the tense cat-and-mouse games played out among the principals, with treacherous goon Martin (Rufus Sewell) trying to sway Alma over to his side, everyone waiting to see who will be the first to strike, and the nonviolent Heyst roused to a “Straw Dogs”-like defense of his home and woman. Ending is basically tragic, with the “victory” referring to the emotionally stunted Heyst finally discovering his ability to love.
Wooden acting by Dafoe and another lackluster English-lingo perf by Jacob give the film a hollow center, so the arrival of Neill, quite effective without matching the brilliance of his predecessors in the role, at least intros some welcome melodrama. Curiously, Peploe makes even less of the gay subtext of Mr. Jones’ relationships with his toadies than did earlier versions. More scenes with this unsavory trio would at least have provided the film with more villainous juice.
Scenes have been staged in a stately, straightforward, unimaginative fashion, with many papered over by Richard Hartley’s sonorous but omnipresent score. In print caught, Bruno De Keyzer’s lensing has a rather murky look despite the verdant opportunities offered by Malaysian and Indonesian locations. Studio work was done in Berlin.
End credits bear a 1995 copyright and list Miramax as distributor, although pic is not currently on its release schedule. Film is rumored to be headed for an official international bow at the San Sebastian Film Festival in late summer.