The Dancer Upstairs

There is an entire genre developing about Americans who live in exotic foreign lands and involve themselves in political intrigue, a la The Tailor of Panama and The Quiet American. The Dancer Upstairs is kind of like that, but for the small fact that none of the characters — save perhaps for one — are actually American, and none of them are played by American actors, though inexplicably, they all speak English anyway. It’s a respectable film, a fairly auspicious directorial debut for actor John Malkovich, but the screenplay, by the gloriously named Nicholas Shakespeare adapting his own novel, positively screamed for a rewrite. Somber and deliberate for its entire running-time, willfully refusing to provide even a modicum of action or conventional “excitement,” it finally goes into hyperdrive in its final 10 minutes, trying to cram its entire load of “revelations” into that short span. This is a seriously backloaded movie.

Malkovich opens curiously, with a title card proclaiming “Latin America: the recent past.” We see a scene at some sort of border traffic stop, where a cop interrogates a strange man who doesn’t have a photo ID. We learn that the cop used to be a lawyer, and learn that the man without his passport is up to no good, as the moment the cop turns his back he up and speeds away.

Some six years later, in an unnamed city, dogs are being murdered and strung up on lampposts with posters proclaiming the arrival of the “president Ezequiel”. Soon, cases of animal cruelty become acts of terrorism, with children screaming Ezequiel’s name and blowing up buildings. It seems that a revolution is starting, and Rejas (Javier Bardem), the same cop who let the mysterious traveler get away, leads the investigation to quell it and find out who is behind it. Meanwhile, he befriends his daughter’s ballet teacher, who provides him with companionship when his ever-absent wife is at one of her book clubs or other sundry activities that do not involve him.

If the film’s intention was to generate steady suspense leading up to the plot’s resolution, it fails miserably. Oh, it’s interesting enough, and never very boring, but the urgency scale rests comfortably at zero throughout. If it intended to make a statement on political fanaticism, it’s not particularly successful there either because there’s never a real sense of a country on the brink of an uprising.

Javier Bardem has the screen presence required of a movie star, but can’t carry a movie when not speaking his native tongue. I’ve already mentioned this, but it’s worth repeating: I’m genuinely puzzled about why these characters speak English the entire time, aside from the obvious reason of Malkovich not speaking Spanish. It makes for a bizarre, awkward experience, even more so than when Harrison Ford and Liam Neeson spoke English with thick Russian accents for K-19: The Widowmaker.

Still, I can’t bring myself to dislike The Dancer Upstairs entirely. There’s a certain dignity to its subdued approach, and the mistakes Malkovich makes with pacing and the like are certainly typical of a rookie director (though, of course, the man has extensive screen experience). I could feel that this movie was almost a smashing success, that it could have been terrific with just a few tweaks here and there.

I should probably mention the romance before signing off. It’s touching in the way love stories about lonely men befriending mysterious women are usually touching, and the ending heightens the emotional wallop. Speaking of the ending, could someone else who has seen the film explain to me how the title makes any sense? It ain’t the dancer who’s upstairs.

-- Eugene Novikov

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Screening Log

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