An insuperable marketing challenge, “Prometheus” is nonetheless a meaty, idea-filled pic that puts many other art movies to shame. An acerbic and ironic meditation on the present human condition, through the filters of 20th century European history and Ancient Greek myth, British poet-playwright Tony Harrison’s first feature sounds like a recipe for pretension but ends up an often inspiring , rewarding lecture. Festivals, specialty events and arty webs rep demanding pic’s markets, though each will be further limited by the need for top-quality subtitling to convey at least some of the essence of the verse script.
The French-subtitled print at the film’s Locarno world preem made a brave stab at mirroring the dialogue, which is entirely in rhyming couplets (though not always obviously so) and swings between tony, elevated English and slang-spattered, northern working-class speech. (Accents present no major problems for North American auds.) Greater problem for the pic lies, however, in its length: Its qualities would be significantly enhanced by drastic cutting of the 45-minute opening set in a Yorkshire mining community and by trimming of the end reel, which doesn’t know when to quit. The middle section — an odyssey across Europe — works just fine, and at around 100 minutes, the whole movie would, too.
Harrison’s basic, leftist-humanist theme — returning power to the people and sweeping away the century’s slow accretion of corporate-political ideologies and non-common-sense values — is slow to come into focus. As the U.K. government closes the last pit in Yorkshire (story’s set during the previous Tory administration), a bronchial old miner (Walter Sparrow) sets off for his last day of work. In the same town, a young kid (Jonathan Waintridge) does his school homework, memorizing a poem on Prometheus, the Greek god who stole fire from Olympus and returned it to humans but was punished by Zeus for his sin.
Images of giant cooling towers and coal stacks permeate the opening, in which the man and boy meet, and the pit’s safety officer is revealed to be the messenger of the gods, Hermes (Michael Feast), a waspish master of ceremonies in a silver suit and nifty boots. Film is essentially a lecture on man’s stupidities and weaknesses by the arrogant, sniffy Hermes to the unrepentantly working-class, chain-smoking old man, as the latter, seated in a decaying movie theater, watches the progress from Germany to Athens of a giant golden statue of Prometheus, forged from the bodies of unemployed Yorkshire miners.
It’s with the start of the odyssey that the film really starts to roll, shaking off its localized, British kitchen-sink approach. As the statue snakes its way on an open truck through all the countries of the former Eastern Europe, accompanied by Hermes’ barbed commentary, pic embraces many of the horrors (Auschwitz, the fire-bombing of Dresden) as well as what Harrison clearly sees as only superficially progressive changes (the arrival of free markets) in 20 th-century Euro history. Arrival of the statue in Greece triggers a great speech by the old man noting the good that fire brought to humankind (making the “so-called gods’ world ours!”). Pic should rightly end here, but trails on with several other endings and a return to drab Yorkshire.
As the main protagonists, repping God and man, both Feast and Sparrow are terrific, the former enunciating with Olivier-like precision and the latter (adopting an utterly convincing northern accent) bringing a gruff poetry to Harrison’s mixture of slang and commonplaces. Framing their verbal sparring is the statue’s picturesque journey, in parallel with a similar journey on foot by the boy’s mom (Fern Smith), who suffers firsthand all the indignities that evolving Central Europe can hurl at her.
Direction by Harrison, who’s worked on TV docus over the past decade, is fine within the limits of the material, without any of the frills of former cinematic poets like Cocteau, Tarkovsky or Eisenstein. Widescreen lensing would have enhanced the movie, given the landscape and themes on display, but Richard Blackford’s powerful, inspirational music, which gathers force as the journey progresses, adds considerable power to d.p. Alistair Cameron’s precision work.