Transferring stage works to the screen has always been a procedure fraught with peril, and An Enemy of the People fails to avoid the obvious pitfalls.
The Henrik Ibsen drama, which was first performed in 1883, concerns a smalltown doctor who discovers that his village’s new hot springs spa is contaminated by tannery waste. Over the objections of the town leaders (particularly his brother, the mayor), he attempts to publicize the scandal, only to be declared a social outcast, his family and career ruined.
Steve McQueen wanted to do the Ibsen work itself, and that was his undoing. While Enemy of the People has much relevance to current ecological dilemmas, the script, based on an Arthur Miller adaptation, isn’t content to simply raise the issues. They are proclaimed in ringing tones, intensifying the preachiness of a work that is already condescending to its audience.
The imbalance wouldn’t be so pronounced were Charles Durning not so magnificent in the role of the harshly realistic brother. Without an adequate presence to balance Durning’s domination of the proceedings, Enemy founders in a sea of verbiage.