Tuesday, March 05, 2013
In 2006, the magnificently named Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck made ‘The Lives of Others’, a real labour of love which he’d spent five years bringing to the screen. It was released to almost universal acclaim, netted an Oscar for Best Foreign Film and announced the arrival of a major new filmmaking talent.
In 2010, von Donnersmarck made ‘The Tourist’, a Hollywood star vehicle in which he invested less than a year, only coming on board after Lasse Hallestrom and Alfonso Cuaron (among others) had come and gone. It was released to almost universal dismissal and the only thing it won was a couple of Teen Choice Awards. There seemed genuine surprise when its overseas box office took it into profit.
There’s no real critical love for ‘The Tourist’ – and it would be difficult to put a spin on the film worthy of a revisionist appraisal – but it’s not without a few hokey pleasures and it certainly isn’t the unmitigated waste of time and talent that most reviewers would have you believe. There are, however, a couple of problems which it struggles to overcome and with which it eventually reaches stalemate. Of which more, to use a pleasantly old-fashioned phrase, later.
‘The Tourist’ opens with Elise Clifton-Ward (Angelina Jolie) under surveillance in Paris by Interpol agents under the coordination of tenacious Scotland Yard detective John Acheson (Paul Bettany). Acheson is on the trail of elusive financial crook Alexander Payne, who owes Her Majesty’s government £744 million in taxes. Her Majesty’s government being something of a capricious entity, non-payment of £744 million is deemed a bad thing, while Acheson being allowed to run up an £8 million bill at the taxpayer’s expense for an operation that has produced exactly one lead is apparently quite acceptable. Well, maybe not to Acheson’s boss, Chief Inspector Jones (Timothy Dalton), who has to sign the receipts and is on the verge of pulling and plug.
Acheson’s single and highly tenuous lead? That’ll be the elegant Elise.
And when Elise receives a mysterious note and immediately quits the pavement café culture of Paris and hops a train for Venice, Acheson intuits that Venice is where he’ll find Payne and goes behind his superior’s back as he attempts to close the net. Meanwhile, a mole in his department blabs details of the Venice connection to mobster Reginald Shaw (Steven Berkoff). Payne might not have paid his taxes to Her Majesty’s government, but he’s actively stolen from Shaw and that pisses Shaw off right royally. And this point I’ll simply reiterate that Shaw is played by Steven Berkoff and leave it to your imagination.
En route to Venice, Elise meets widowed American maths teacher Frank Tupelo (Johnny Depp) and part-seduces, part-confuses him and all-round plays him for a sap. You see, that mysterious note Elise received instructed her to find someone her pursuers would believe was Payne in order to distract them. Thus, spy novel aficionado Tupelo finds himself in a for-real web of intrigue and double-bluff when all he really wants is the affections of the alluring Elise. Instead, he finds himself targeted by Acheson and Shaw alike, as well as running afoul of the Venezian police. (Incidentally, if your idea of the Venezian police is formed by the novels of Donna Leon, check in your aesthetics at the popcorn stand. This lot are like the Keystone Kops with kanals.*)
This is where the film runs into the first of its problems. For the plot to work, Frank Tupelo has to be an everyman. A quite literal innocent abroad. A dupe with a streak of the hopeless romantic. You have to be able to – by turns – feel sorry for him, laugh at him, and root for him. Johnny Depp is a remarkably talented actor, but one so associated with quirky characters (indeed, someone so associated with quirkiness simply because he’s Johnny Depp) that it’s basically impossible to cast him in an everyman role. And his attempt to play Tupelo in said manner leads to a leeching of charisma and, crucially, a lack of chemistry in his scenes with Jolie.
Lack of chemistry between the leads is a deal-breaker for any movie, but doubly for a romantic thriller that’s so obviously patterning itself on the ‘To Catch a Thief’ model. Which is where the second problem comes strolling through the piazza. The script is credited to von Donnersmarck, Julian Fellowes and Christopher McQuarrie, based on Jerome Salle’s script for his 2005 French language film ‘Anthony Zimmer’. Although von Donnersmarck rewrote the script prior to filming, it’s very easy to delineate the individual contributions: anything elegant, witty and Hitchcockian probably came from the pen of Fellowes; the thrilleramics, double-bluffs and sadistic villain from McQuarrie; and the minutiae of surveillance from von Donnersmarck. ‘The Tourist’ could have been an immediately and infinitely better film had it settled on just one approach. In fact, I’d wager that if script duties had been solely left to Fellowes, it would have been a pure joy.
Still, there’s enough to like. The sheen of artifice suits the Hitchcockian elements well, and DoP John Seale shoots everything in a sun-dappled palette that has probably earned him a crate of champagne from the Venice Tourist Board. (Here’s a quick game: write down all the movies set in Venice you can think of, and give them a 1 – 5 rating based on how desirable a holiday destination they portray the city as. I’m guessing you’ve got ‘Death in Venice’, ‘Don’t Look Now’, ‘The Comfort of Strangers’, the last scene of ‘Casino Royale’ and a handful of gialli and you’d run a mile rather than ride a gondola. Now watch ‘The Tourist’; you’ll be looking at travel agents’ brochures before you know it.)
The few action scenes that the movie delivers and well constructed, and a rooftop chase nicely punctures the free-running extravaganzas that Hollywood usually delivers when characters race across the skyline; here, tiles give way, characters stumble and the pace is hilariously (and realistically) slow.
Apart from Depp’s somewhat wooden turn, performances are generally good. Dalton takes what is essentially a glorified cameo and has great fun with it. Rufus Sewell turns up for all of a minute and a half and damn near steals the show. Berkoff reins in his usual manic twitchiness and Shaw emerges as all the more dangerous for it. But the jewel in the crown, the shining star of ‘The Tourist’ is Angelina Jolie. I don’t think she’s ever looked more the old-school effortlessly elegant movie star than she does here. Her English accent, while a tad more cut-glass than even the most upper class British inflection, is much more convincing than in her outings as Lara Croft. But mainly it’s the air of intrigue, allure and teasingly aloof sophistication that virtually emanates from her as she glides seductively across the screen. I’ve always associated Jolie with an earthier, raunchier persona and to see the transformation wrought here is to be mesmerised. Hmmm, maybe the Venice Tourist Board owes her a crate of bubbly as well.
*I apologise unreservedly for that so-called joke.