Posts Tagged ‘The Quiet American’

From the Hootoo archives. Originally published April 3rd 2003:

It’s ironic that, for a country that’s not really been overly blessed with genuine movie stars (not recently, anyway), we’ve only recently appreciated the national treasure that is Sir Michael Caine. Admittedly the great man did not help his standing much by appearing in a load of old crap throughout the 1970s (mainly to pay off various mortgages), but now, in this late stage of his career, each new appearance is something to be looked forward to.

And now he’s back in Phillip Noyce’s The Quiet American, based on the novel by Graham Greene. Here Caine plays Thomas Fowler, a world-weary (and, this being a Greene protagonist, Catholic) reporter stationed in Saigon in the early 1950s. Fowler hasn’t gotten involved in the war between the governing French authorities and the Communist rebels – he doesn’t even have an opinion on the matter. But his cynicism extends only so far, and he’s deeply in love with his much-younger Vietnamese mistress Phuong (played by the heartstoppingly beautiful Do Thi Hai Yen). Their life together is set for upheaval, though, when the hardly-industrious Fowler is threatened with recall to London, forcing him to visit the war zone in search of a story – and also by the arrival in Vietnam of idealistic young American aid worker Alden Pyle (Brendan Fraser, shrewdly cast). Pyle is determined to help both Phuong and the country, no matter what methods he is forced to use…

It’s not easy to make a film of one of Greene’s thoughtful and skilfully written novels at the best of times, and to make one about an American bombing a Third World nation ‘for its own good’ that isn’t commercial suicide in the current climate is an enormous challenge (even bigger than the one I face in trying to get any witty remarks on this subject past the BBC censors). But Noyce has managed it pretty well: the movie is well staged, extremely well photographed, and stylishly directed.

He gets a towering performance out of Caine. To be sure, there’s not much exactly new here – various bits of most of his latterday roles get recycled – but the overall effect is compelling, moving, and entirely worthy of his Oscar nomination. He doesn’t steal the movie: rather, it is constructed around him.

And this isn’t wholly to the benefit of the film. For one thing, it gives Brendan Fraser a very difficult job indeed in bringing the eponymous character to life. Fraser is a much underrated actor; on his day he’s quite capable of holding his own against seasoned scene-stealers like Sir Ian McKellen. But here he struggles, sidelined too much by the dominance of Caine’s character. And given that the conflict – both romantic and political – between the two is at the heart of the story, this inevitably affects the impact of the story. To the film’s credit, it tackles some thorny moral and political issues with impressive intelligence, seeming to suggest that there are no easy answers – but the political themes of the story (which are vaguely like those of the most famous Greene movie, The Third Man) are pushed into the background by the film’s focus on Caine and the love triangle. It may make the film more marketable these days, but that’s all it achieves.

Despite all this, though, I found The Quiet American to be an intelligent, involving, and extremely well made drama. Circumstances may have given it a certain resonance its makers didn’t intend, but even without this it would still be worth seeing, if only for Caine’s consummate display of screen acting technique. A great performance in what’s only a good movie – pity they couldn’t have split the difference a bit more.

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