Three fine actors and a top director give a very good account of Ariel Dorfman’s “Death and the Maiden” in this tense, adroit film version of the play, so any significant reservations about it must stem from the material itself. As vivid and suspenseful as Roman Polanski has made this claustrophobic tale of a torture victim turning the tables on her putative tormentor, one is still left with a film in which each character represents a mouthpiece for an ideology. Chamber drama nature of the enterprise, as well as its roots in foreign politics , tag this as a specialized release domestically, where Fine Line should be able to generate decent results based on good reviews and the names involved.
Dorfman’s play, which was produced on Broadway in 1992 with Glenn Close, Richard Dreyfuss and Gene Hackman (directed by Mike Nichols), was clearly based on the contemporary history of his native Chile, but took the universal route by not identifying its locale or specific events. Similarly, the film is set in “a country in South America … after the fall of the dictatorship,” and the actions described could reasonably apply to any nation where the regimes have alternated dramatically between left and right.
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All the same, the film builds its considerable tension through the accumulation of concrete specifics, not generalities. The early scene-setting has Paulina Escobar (Sigourney Weaver) nervously pacing about a remote beach house during a rainstorm, finally retreating to a closet to eat her dinner. At length, a car pulls up through the darkness and Dr. Roberto Miranda (Ben Kingsley) drops off Paulina’s husband, Gerardo (Stuart Wilson), whose car has broken down.
A leftist lawyer, Gerardo has been named to chair the new president’s commission on human rights violations that occurred under the toppled fascist regime. As chance would have it, one of the many victims was Paulina, who as a student 15 years earlier was held prisoner and repeatedly tortured and raped by a man she never saw due to her blindfold.
It doesn’t take long for Paulina, who has remained in the bedroom, to tell that the stranger’s voice belongs to the man who brutalized her long ago. As the men proceed to get drunk, she sneaks outside and pushes Miranda’s car over a cliff, then returns to pistol-whip the visitor and bind him to a chair, her panties neatly stuffed in his mouth.
Thus is Miranda put on trial, with the audience as jury. Gerardo becomes Miranda’s defender, a role he embraces a tad too earnestly for Paulina’s taste, as he is rather anxious to believe the man’s protestations of innocence and is appalled at the idea of his wife taking justice into her own hands.
Revenge is impossible for her, she admits. All she wants from Miranda is an honest confession, upon which she says she’ll let him go. If he refuses, she will kill him.
Dorfman, who has expanded but not opened up his play with the help of Rafael Yglesias (“Fearless”), keeps the audience guessing about whether Miranda is the right man up to the very end. Paulina might be just unhinged enough to throw doubt on her credibility, while Miranda’s claim that he was out of the country during the period in question increasingly holds water. Script presents its moral and dramatic quandary effectively, even if the strategic coincidences of the characters’ opposing ideologies and viewpoints are concocted in a terminally calculated manner.
Fully employing the house set, adroitly designed by Pierre Guffroy, with barren exteriors shot on Spain’s northwest coast, Polanski succeeds in establishing a creepy atmosphere. He uses every device at his disposal to keep the tension and ambiguity ratcheted high. Still, the work feels like a skillfully executed assignment rather than a highly personal effort, as it lacks the perverse, humorous and genuinely idiosyncratic stamp of his most memorable pictures.
Cast is excellent, though having Anglo-American actors portray South Americans will bother some people. Always good at projecting resilience, Weaver is a bundle of raw nerve endings here, and her hair-trigger impulsiveness helps keep one on edge. Kingsley shrewdly tantalizes the viewer about his identity, and gets to deliver the text’s most riveting monologue at the end. The lesser-known Wilson may be the first among equals, impressing strongly as the equivocating husband.
Behind-the-scenes talents have contributed mightily. Veteran lenser Tonino Delli Colli’s accomplishment looks deceptively simple, but, in fact, with the electricity out in the house most of the night, he has been forced to light the picture largely with candles and the odd lantern or flashlight. His work indoors is superlative, as is his night shooting on location.
Herve De Luze’s cutting is very tight, while Wojciech Kilar’s original score deftly helps build mood and suspense.