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Eye of the Needle
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by Jack Sommersby

"An Unctuous Battle of the Sexes"
2 stars

Kate Nelligan and Donald Sutherland do what they can, but they're handicapped by the dunderheaded writing and poor directing.

The spy adventure Eye of the Needle, an adaptation of Ken Follett’s best-selling novel, is well-acted and isn’t without the occasional interest, and I didn’t believe a single thing in it. I trust this is less a case of logic loopholes on the part of a stalwart like Follet, and more on veteran screenwriter Stanley Mann truncating the source material to the point of near-intelligibility. Set during World War II, the movie opens with a seemingly-nondescript Englishman by the name of Henry Faber (Donald Sutherland) exchanging bland pleasantries with a co-worker before bicycling back to a cottage where he’s renting a room; and when his kindly landlady carries a meat pie and some beer up to his room and lets herself in, she sees Faber on a radio transmitter speaking in German -- realizing he’s a Nazi spy, she tries to get away but is viciously knifed in the belly (which is why he’s known as “the Needle”). This is crosscut with the wedding of English military officer David Rose (Christopher Cazenove) and his bride Lucy (Kate Nelligan), who, while drunkenly driving to the hotel where they’ll spend their honeymoon, has a car crash, resulting in David losing both his legs with Lucy unharmed. We forward four years later, to the isolated Storm Island on the Scotland coast, were the Roses are the only inhabitants aside from the elderly caretaker of the lighthouse; the wheel-chaired David has taken up the trade of a sheer farmer, with Lucy caring for their four-year-old son (Lucy was pregnant before the wedding, and seeing how far down a river bank their car crashed, with it having hit at a ninety-degree angle, it’s not only questionable that Lucy wasn’t seriously hurt but that she didn’t miscarry), who David, drunken most of the time, has alienated him, ashamed he won’t ever be able to play sports with his child, labeling himself a “legless, fucking joke.” He isn’t impotent, though, but he still can’t come to terms with his being legless and can’t stand to even brush against his wife in the hallway, so the Roses’ marital bed has remained plutonic, which has left Lucy both sexually frustrated and incredibly lonely. Meanwhile, Faber, the most trusted spy of the Fuhrer, has stumbled upon a devastating secret that could determine the fate of the war in Germany’s favor -- penetrating a sparsely-guarded airfield, he’s managed to take photographs of what are actually plywood planes, which have been made to fool the Nazis into thinking by their aerial photographs the Allies’ invasion is set to invade there rather than Normandy. Yet, inexplicably, and just so the plot doesn’t collapse by the halfway mark, instead of immediately transmitting this vital information to the Fuhrer, Faber, instructed to meet up with a German U-Boat to deliver him back home to relay his information in person, commandeers a boat yet gets caught upon in a devastating storm at sea, resulting in his boat being destroyed and him miraculously surviving and washing up on the shore of Storm Island, where he’s taken in by the Roses and cared for and nourished back to health. Faber claims he unwisely took his boat out without checking on weather conditions beforehand, which David is suspicious of. But with David habitually going to the lighthouse getting drunk and leaving Lucy to care for Faber, the two strike up an erotic attraction, and, well, you can no doubt see where things are headed.

There’s an attempt made at eliciting sympathy for Faber, and the always-welcome Sutherland does as much as he can with the role, but it doesn’t give him the girth that he needs. Faber opens up to Lucy about his unhappy childhood, which is meant to lend credence to him genuinely falling in love with her and not killing her when he has the chance later on down the line, but this is mere contrivance, as well as characterization by dossier rather than dramatization -- everything in Eye of the Needle comes off as vague and shorthand, as if the moviemakers didn’t want to dirty themselves by actually delving into anything remotely smacking of subtext. (It’s as pseudo and wooden as those plywood planes.) Nothing in the movie makes a lick of sense. When Scotland Yard manages to locate one of Faber’s former co-workers who can identify him, they get onboard the train he’s suspected of being on, and rather than one of their armed officers escorting the man through the compartments, the co-worker goes off alone, and just so Faber can conveniently hold him at knifepoint, get information from him, and slaughter him before jumping off the train. And when David has discovered incriminating evidence in Faber’s pocket (the reel of the film, though how in the world David can logically construe the relevance of its contents is anybody’s guess), David, with a shotgun trained on Faber from fifteen-feet away, instructs him to crawl toward his jeep and give him the film rather than just have Faber throw it to him, and just so Faber can sneakily overpower him. (Not only is David made out to be exceedingly unpleasant, but something of a dodo, as well.) Which eventually leads to Lucy realizing Faber’s true identity yet her having to sublimate this in order to protect herself and her child. And it’s here that the movie’s sole virtue, the superb performance by Nelligan, is given the necessary aesthetic room to resonate. The ethereally beautiful Nelligan doesn’t act in “italics” in that she’s neither mechanical nor obvious; she’s required to pull off some rather difficult emotional transitions here, and she succeeds with the verity of a classically trained stage actress but without any theatricality to her -- unlike a lot of stage thespians, she’s completely comfortable in front of the camera and has an instinct for modulating the performance so there’s never “too much.” Nelligan sustains her scenes in Eye of the Needle, which, in light of how lackluster the material is, is akin to sustaining a Lady Macbeth performance in an avant-garde Andy Warhol production. Too bad the proceedings were left in the hands of director Richard Marquand, who showed a wee bit of ability in the haunted-house picture The Legacy, and his television-movie Birth of the Beatles wasn’t without interest, but in a reasonably large-scale motion picture such as this, he’s clearly out of his element. Marquand isn’t a bad director per se, but he’s certainly an undistinguished one. Despite working with a fine cinematographer like Alan Hume, the visuals are inexpressive bordering on cruddy (both Scotland and England have the same monochromatic dowdiness), and certain scenes that should hold unbearable tension are flabby and poorly executed. Nothing in the movie builds, it limps along; sitting through it is like taking a listless two-hour tour of a retirement home.

A tax seminar would be more cinematic.

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originally posted: 04/24/15 10:51:55
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  24-Jul-1981 (R)

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  01-Oct-1981 (M)

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