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Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness directed by Nicolas Roeg and starring Tim Roth and John Malkovich? I'm there, ready and waiting. As it turns out, TNT Cable's 1993 TV movie Heart of Darkness plays to the strengths of actor Tim Roth and almost nobody else. The last Roeg movie that had made a splash was 1990's entertaining The Witches, and this show plays as if done on assignment, fulfilling a contract. Production values are good and location filming in Belize is effective enough, but writer Benedict Fitzgerald's screenplay follows the bare events of the Conrad story closely and with insufficient interpretation, so much so that we sometimes think we're watching a watered down version of Apocalypse Now, 're-imagined' as a period picture in the Belgian Congo.
Seasoned riverboat captain Marlow (Tim Roth) takes a job from some shifty Belgian businessmen involved in the ivory trade. He's to make his way inland into the Belgian Congo, reconnoiter with a company representative and take command of a small steamboat. Marlow is to find out what's stopped ivory shipments. The cause may be other problems, but the main suspect is Kurtz (John Malkovich), the director of a remote outpost who hasn't been in contact with the company for some time, and is rumored to have been running a private, murderous little kingdom of his own. Marlow finds that his various contacts are safe-playing bureaucrats who don't want to know about problems, or odd men barely capable of doing the company's business. The director at the river, Gosse (James Fox) considers Marlow a threat and hardly cooperates with him. Marlow finds the steamboat sunk on the shoreline and must work alone with the natives to re-float it. He then presses on with the black first mate Mfumu (Isaach De Bankolé of Night On Earth) helping to lead his black crew. At the final camp Marlow finds signs of outright savagery. He's captured and imprisoned for a period of time. Kurtz seems totally mad, or at the very least committed to a new, extremely misanthropic philosophy. They talk, and for a while it doesn't look like Marlow is going to be allowed to leave alive.
Roeg's Heart of Darkness follows the Cliff's Notes digest of Conrad quite clearly. Marlow is first seen eating on the deck of a small boat in London. The company Director (Peter Vaughn) entreats him to divulge all he knows about what occurred on his trip to the Congo. The flashback that constitutes most of the story offers normal narrative images of things that in the book were very possibly meant to be symbolic, such as the two knitting ladies stationed outside the company's doors. Any student trying to plumb the mystery of Conrad will remember the suggestion that the women seem like the dogs guarding the gates to the underworld. In the movie, they're just there.
Tim Roth uses his impressive presence to enliven the trek through the jungle, but once one takes away Conrad's suspenseful, dark verbal imagery we're left with a fairly straightforward jungle adventure, made up mostly of downbeat and grim events. The people Marlow meets on the way are either shifty employees volunteering no information, surly types perhaps thinking Marlow's instructions are to spy on them, or white men gone batty in the jungle, like the famous (and infinitely interpreted) Harlequin, who greets Marlow at Kurtz's camp and does his best to minimize the shock of seeing dead bodies lying about and hung from trees. Just when Marlow thinks he's found a trustworthy confederate in Mfumu, the native says disturbing things that reveal a penchant for cannibalism. They fend off the attacks by natives fairly well, only to discover that the attackers may have been following orders from the dreaded Kurtz.
Kurtz is the film's big failing, mainly because no adjustment was made to retain the character's mystery and power as communicated in the novel. Conrad's Kurtz is a scrawny dying man, yet is still powerful because he commands the unquestioning obedience of a brutal tribe. That, and his frightening words and writings conjure up images of untold evils and native atrocities. The book's Marlow barely sees Kurtz but the man's presence seems suffused into every page. Kurtz's aura is built up until he seems the most frightening person alive.
This is clearly why Francis Coppola limited our knowledge about his Vietnam-warrior Kurtz, an apparently radically changed man. Brando's Kurtz is a half-naked philosophical madman seen only in shadow, pouring water over his head and mumbling a constant strain of disturbing, pornographically malevolent speeches. Brando's Kurtz didn't satisfy all audiences, but Coppola knew that the film could only succeed if he laid on the morbid atmosphere, and added a heavy dose of Pure Dread.
John Malkovich comes off as only slightly distracted, as if all the chaos and carnage he's supposed to have caused is some sort of unfortunate mistake. When Marlow finally reads Kurtz's frightening diaries endorsing the idea of, "exterminating all the brutes", Malkovich's Kurtz doesn't seem capable of being so nasty. He instead mopes about in long robes and talks about inconsequential things, as would a marginal moon-looney. We feel no real threat from the man. Kurtz is sick and the movie ends exactly as does the book, but we don't feel the enormity of evil that we should. Yes, the white traders have destabilized the black interior of the country, and Kurtz has set himself up as a sort of God-warlord. But besides getting roughed up a bit, Tim Roth's Marlow does very little but observe as Kurtz's petty kingdom collapses around him. We can almost hear the pages turn as the movie spools out.
None of the other supporting characters makes much of an impact, even when it looks as if Kurtz is going to allow the band of greedy traders to leave with a barge loaded with ivory tusks. The statuesque Iman plays Kurtz's 'black beauty' and presumed concubine; she stands and stares regally at all times. Future Star Wars Emperor Palpatine shows up playing a doctor. As in the book, Marlow is impressed by the wife Kurtz has left behind in Brussels (Candice Daly). He visits her upon his return and can find no reason to disillusion her about her husband. In fact, the only strong change I found from the book (which leaves so much unsaid and half-described) is Marlow's antagonistic attitude to the Company. He steadfastly refuses to turn over Kurtz's diary and talks tough when the Director tries to pressure him.
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of Heart of Darkness is a good encoding of this TV movie that doesn't appear to have been remastered from film. The 1:37 ratio is probably accurate but the show lacks the kind of stunning visuals we expect from Nicolas Roeg, whether filming or directing. A small but notable drawback is the lack of subtitles. With all the Englishmen, Frenchmen and Belgians talking in thick accents some conversations can be difficult to follow, at least for this viewer.
Reviewers from 1993 liked Heart of Darkness, perhaps impressed that a Cable network was taking on such a weighty book with such star personalities. Amusingly, more than one critic took the attitude that viewers may feel that things are familiar, as (gasp) the movie shares the same literary source as the big psychedelic Vietnam War epic. To me the show comes off as a work for hire, and is enjoyable because of the intelligence of its main actor, Tim Roth. He'd be entertaining just waiting for a bus.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Heart of Darkness rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.