A serious-minded, emotionally distant study of political intrigue and personal betrayal, “The Big Brass Ring” offers some interesting ideas but is rather lacking in dramatic plausibility and decipherable character motivation. A good cast, fresh St. Louis settings, snippets of lively dialogue and some resonant themes remaining from Orson Welles’ original script keep the film watchable, but pic’s remote and often puzzling nature poses a formidable obstacle to audience engagement, spelling tough commercial sledding.
George Hickenlooper’s fourth dramatic feature, following a distinguished career start in documentaries, is notable for its origins in one of Welles’ most intriguing late-career scripts. Written, with contributions from his longtime collaborator Oja Kodar, in 1981-82 and published posthumously in 1987, screenplay was seen by scholars as a fascinating companion piece to “Citizen Kane” in its preoccupation with self-destructive prominent men as well as its explicit political themes. It was a provocative piece that proved remarkably prescient in its detailing of the way closeted skeletons can threaten politicians’ careers, and be dealt with; once again, Welles was ahead of his time.
Hickenlooper and his co-scenarist, L.A.-based film critic F.X. Feeney, who separately undertook adaptations of Welles’ script before joining forces, have departed from their source in many important ways, beginning with moving its settings from Spain and Africa to the U.S. and changing its central figure from a U.S. senator to an aspirant to the governor’s mansion. In addition, Hickenlooper has wisely chosen not to ape Welles’ distinctive visual style, but to travel his own road — for better or worse — and make his own film, not an attempted approximation of what he imagines the master would have done. On its own terms, pic is better directed than Hickenlooper’s previous features.
But it’s still Welles the director that “The Big Brass Ring” most crucially misses, for without his hallucinatory approach to a bizarre, sometimes inscrutable series of events, the customary narrative and emotional connections become sorely missed; a relatively straightforward style just doesn’t do justice to the sort of swirling, baroque structure and outsize characters Welles habitually created. It’s as if the leapfrogging, logic-of-a-dream storylines of “The Lady From Shanghai” and “Mr. Arkadin” were rendered almost in the manner of a semi-verite docudrama.
Result carries some intellectual weight, but doesn’t connect in particularly meaningful ways as either highbrow art film or believable political melodrama. A subtle but symptomatic problem crops up at the outset: Both Blake Pellarin (William Hurt) and his competitor for the governorship of Missouri are described in passing as independent candidates, a circumstance odd enough to deserve some explanation.
The close race is pushing into its final week when a potential tripwire turns up in the form of Kim Mennaker (Nigel Hawthorne), a former senator who is Pellarin’s unofficial stepfather. Mennaker has been living in exile in Havana for years after his gay exploits finished his American political career (the notion of Cuba as a gay haven is another puzzling detail). Blunt flashbacks to 1971 reveal Mennaker taking “art” photos of a teenager presumed to be Pellarin in sexually compromising situations with both a woman and a man, and the sudden appearance of one of these photos as threatened blackmail material casts a pall over the Pellarin camp while repping only a hint of what Mennaker could reveal about the candidate if he wanted to.
Into the middle of the storm jumps an aggressive European journalist, Cela Brandini (Irene Jacob), who uses tidbits thrown to her by Mennaker to pry additional info out of Pellarin. The candidate finally journeys up the Mississippi to confront his former mentor at a gaudy, gay-oriented floating casino called the Louis Quatorze. From the incriminating photos, the issues deepen to touch upon Pellarin’s father, who died in the Korean War, and the candidate’s mysterious brother, who was long thought to have died in Vietnam but , Mennaker suggests, may still be alive.
In other words, Mennaker knows even more about Pellarin’s family and affairs than he does, and discretion isn’t necessarily one of his qualities; after all, he’s been writing a tell-all tome for the past 27 years that now tops 15,000 pages. There are also such matters as the increasing resentment of Pellarin’s wealthy wife, Dinah (Miranda Richardson), over Mennaker’s meddling and Cela’s increasing intimacy with her husband, and the devious scheming of Pellarin’s bodyguard Kinzel (Ewan Stewart).
It’s just too much to believe that all the events crowded into the hours before the election could possibly take place in that space of time; only a defiantly stylized visual approach could take the onus of realism off the narrative, and Hickenlooper doesn’t provide it. Further undercutting logic are the motives of the one-dimensional supporting characters.
Principal roles are credibly inhabited. Hurt is plausible as an attractive political figure in the most modern opaque sense, a man for whom thorny moral questions are merely issues to be evaded or spun. Hawthorne has a good time, and many of the best lines, as a grand dirty old man of the public arena, while Richardson does a lot with relatively little as the candidate’s controlling wife , who feels events slipping from her grasp. Arguably for the first time, Jacob registers acceptably in an English-lingo performance.
St. Louis locations effectively reflect the Americas of 100 years ago and today, and tech contributions are decent overall.