Tim Roth stars as Marlow in director Nicolas Roeg's 1993 TNT cable movie adaptation of Joseph Conrad's classic novella Heart of Darkness, newly released on manufactured-on-demand DVD as part of the Warner Archive Collection. I haven't read Conrad's original story, so I can't judge this version's faithfulness, but I am familiar with the most famous movie adaptation of this story, Apocalypse Now. While it might be unfair to expect a cinema masterpiece on par with Coppola's take, this oddly detached, low-energy retelling fails to satisfy even much lower expectations.
It is the turn of the century. Seaman Marlow is hired as skipper of a riverboat in the Congo by a trading company who has seen a large portion of its ivory shipments go missing, while one of its top traders has gone M.I.A. Marlow is supposed to track down this man, Kurtz (John Malkovich), and presumably ascertain whether or not he's gone rogue and then get the ivory back either way. He is given a crew of twenty natives, led by boilerman Mfumu (Isaach De BankolÚ, of many Jim Jarmusch movies), and a few white "pilgrim" tagalongs.
There are a number of difficulties impeding the goal of getting to Kurtz. The riverboat Marlow is supposed to use on his journey has been sunk and partially submerged. The supplies which were supposed to be traded for the ivory get burned in the night. On another night, some of the natives from Marlow's crew get kidnapped. Eventually, the boat gets attacked by arrows and spears.
When they finally reach Kurtz's outpost, it turns out the trader has become a mad messianic leader of the nearby natives. Norwegian actor Morten Haldaas makes an excellent appearance as the "Harlequin," the Russian sailor who first greets Marlow's boat outside of Kurtz's outpost and raves about the brilliance and the power of the man (Dennis Hopper played the equivalent role in Apocalypse Now). Haldaas is so entertaining to watch and is such a good hypeman that we can hardly wait to see the main event. On top of that, Malkovich would seem to be brilliant casting for Kurtz, the role which Marlon Brando made famous in the Coppola version. But he bungles it. He underplays Kurtz and makes him too blasÚ; you end up wondering why anybody cares about this guy or what he does. He doesn't project power on screen. At one point, Kurtz snaps a monkey's neck while talking to Marlow to make a point, but Malkovich does it so blandly, with such detachment, that it barely registers emotionally. We also don't get to spend much time with Kurtz; we don't get a sense of him as a man instead of as a plot device.
Although it also feels sketchily written, Marlow's character comes off a little better. This is largely due to Tim Roth's performance. He can't rescue every scene, but he exudes ferocity and world-weariness in equal measure. His scenes with de BankolÚ are often quite warm, and their characters' interactions are far more interesting than anything Kurtz has to say to Marlow.
While director Roeg's work on Heart of Darkness is not without traces of his personality, we are a long way from Walkabout and The Man Who Fell To Earth here. He is able to create interesting sequences, shot with unusual set-ups, and many times edited in unconventional patterns. But that doesn't prevent the overall film from feeling a bit dull.
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