Unlikely to bridge the gap between those who reckon Magyar director Bela Tarr is either a visionary genius or a crashing bore, “The Man From London” checks in as good but not great Tarr, more on the level of his first mature work, “Damnation” (1987), than one to sit at the Olympian table of “Satan’s Tango” and “Werckmeister Harmonies.” Moody, claustrophobic drama about a blue-collar stiff who stumbles on a stash of money, pic seems a hostage to its plot rather than a true Tarr reverie on human desire and greed, with less of his spiritual underpinnings. Fests will bite, nonetheless.
Film is freely adapted from a little-known novel by Belgian writer Georges Simenon, creator of Maigret, that was filmed in 1943 by director Henri Decoin, with Fernand Ledoux in the main role. Tarr and his regular co-writer, Hungarian novelist Laszlo Krasznahorkai, remain true to the basic essentials, dispensing chunks of plot in a handful of long speeches. But from the very first shot — a long, slow pan up the prow of a ship, accompanied by Mihaly Vig’s lugubrious drone score — there’s no doubting the pic’s authorship.
Almost the whole movie is from the p.o.v. of a gruff, middle-aged railroad employee whom we later learn is called Maloin (Czech actor Miroslav Krobot), who works the signal box of a boat-train connection in a small French port. As pic begins, a boat from London is just discharging its passengers at night on to the waiting train, and from his eyrie above the harbour Maloin sees a small case thrown from the boat to a man waiting on the other side of the harbor.
Soon, the man who retrieves the case is in a struggle with another, and the former drowns in the harbor, taking the case with him. Characters are seen only in long shot, from Maloin’s vantage point, as they enter and exit pools of light thrown on the stone quay by wall lamps. Who they are and what’s going on is a mystery.
Maloin retrieves the case from the sea and finds a stash of English banknotes inside, which he painstakingly dries on his signalbox’s stove.
The look of the banknotes establishes pic in the present, but there’s a typically Tarr-like timelessness to the whole movie — from the weathered, Central European faces of the thesps, through the ’40s-noir B&W lensing by d.p. Fred Kelemen (also a helmer in his own right), to the rundown, southern-looking town in which it’s set. (Shooting was actually in Corsica.) With all thesps either speaking (or dubbed into) Hungarian, the sense of any precise physical location seems deliberately discombobulated.
Back home, Maloin lives a dreary life with his wife (Tilda Swinton) and daughter, Henriette (Erika Bok), whom he drags from her job swabbing floors in a small fooderie. When an English cop, Insp. Morrison (Istvan Lenart), arrives from London, Maloin realises he’s stumbled on a £60,000 ($120,000) stash stolen by a certain Brown (Janos Derzi). The man who drowned that night was Brown’s associate, Teddy.
Morrison’s long speeches, delivered by Tarr regular Lenart in a curiously halting Hungarian, start to fill in the background after an hour or so. But they also get in the way of what should be the pic’s prime focus — Maloin’s emotional conflict as he finds a possible escape from his clock-punching, routine life.
In “Damnation,” Tarr managed to combine the spiritual and criminal to powerful effect; in “London,” he falls between the two. Despite the immaculate mise-en-scene — long takes, prowling camera, moody music, characterful faces — there’s no progression to a higher level, no late-on transfiguration of the material (as in “Satan” and “Werckmeister”) to justify the Brucknerian structure.
Swinton (speaking English but dubbed into Hungarian) is well cast but has only a few scenes in which to register; Bok comes across as a fuller character, thanks to a bar-room conversation with her father. Krobot (from “Wrong Side Up”) melds well with the remaining Hungarian cast, but remains an enigma.
Tarr’s last three features have all had elongated production schedules and “London,” spread over 2003-07, is no different in not showing any signs of the difficulties. (Most catastrophic interruption was due to the Feb. ’05 suicide of French producer Humbert Balsam, to whom pic is dedicated.) Only tech weakness is Vig’s score, typically based on repeated melodies, which is effective but less transcendental than that for “Satan” and “Werckmeister.”