Death and the Maiden

Reviewed By Chris Parry
Posted 11/29/02 14:00:41

"Weaver vs Kingsley in a battle of words and wits."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

A woman (Sigourney Weaver) married to a South American diplomat (Stuart Wilson) is getting worried. Every time she hears a car, she thinks her husband is about to be assassinated. The political climate is hot and heavy and being as she was raped and tortured many years ago for refusing to reveal her husband’s whereabouts, this woman has reason to be worried. So when her old man’s car gets a flat one night, leading him to get a lift home with a strange man (Ben Kingsley) who’s voice Sigourney recognizes from somewhere, she doesn’t just put it down to coincidence. She gets a little psychotic.

What follows is best described as I Spit on Your Grave without the penis lopping and violent T&A. Sigourney goes crazy-ass ape-shit oh-my-god please-please-no-no put-down-the-knife on Kingsley, tying him to a chair and subjecting him to an interrogation aimed at proving he’s her torturer from years ago. How does she know this? Well, she doesn’t really, but she’s got some heavy suspicions, and her victim here listens to the same piece of music that her torturer used to play (Death and the Maiden). For a woman who’s been to the edge and back a few dozen times, that’s a good enough reason to take out a gun and tie a dude to a chair.

Underage flesh connoisseur Roman Polanski directed this UK/French/American production which had to be shot overseas since the director is still unable to return to the USA without risk of arrest. All the usual Polanski trademarks are there, the woman being put through the wringer, the clueless husband, the innocuous ending, as well as the overall mixed feeling it will leave most viewers with. Polanski is one of those directors that meant something in the 70’s but could never move on and adapt to the times, but Death and the Maiden is a prime example of how he can be very good when he stops trying to be. As a stageplay this would have been fantastic stuff, but at times there’s just not enough action in the screenplay to keep a big screen audience entertained, moved or otherwise. Still, at other times the sheer passion with which the words are spoken and the veracity with which they were written threatens to pop your eardrums and burst a blood vessel or two, and Polanski allows that to happen by staying the hell out of the picture.

Ben Kingsley, as you’d expect, is barnstormingly good as the maybe good, maybe bad guy at the center of this brouhaha. Sigourney Weaver plays off Kingsley’s performance well, if not quite as well as he does, but between the two of them they manage to sustain the audience’s interest in this potentially fatal battle of wits. Wilson, as the third man in this three man affair, um’s and ah’s and er’s his way through the film, looking at various times distracted by his leads and at other times completely devastated by them. His character isn’t written as strongly as theirs and his role isn’t performed as well as theirs, leaving him standing out like a shag on a rock, trying to find some saving grace with his involvement in the project.

Ultimately, this is a tough flick to watch and a tough flick to enjoy, but it’s a good example of a director backing the hell off and letting his actors just act. There’s no cacophony of musical score blasting away at you like there would be if Garry Marshall were helming things. There’s no sign of the smash cuts that would be littering the thing if Jerry Bruckheimer was producing. There’s just a guy, a girl, and a potential torturer tied to a chair. Will they get the truth before the troops arrive at sunrise? Will they find out he’s not who Sigourney thought he was?

Gripping stuff.

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