Monday, March 14, 2011

Review: "The Quiet American" Waits Until the End to Get Loud (Happy B'day, Michael Caine)

TRASH IN MY EYE No. 51 (of 2003) by Leroy Douresseaux

The Quiet American (2002)
Running time: 101 minutes (1 hour, 41 minutes)
MPAA – R for images of violence and some language
DIRECTOR: Phillip Noyce
WRITERS: Christopher Hampton and Robert Schenkkan (based upon a novel by Graham Greene)
PRODUCERS: Staffan Ahrenberg and William Horberg
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Christopher Doyle
EDITOR: John Scott
Academy Award nominee

DRAMA/MYSTERY with elements of a thriller

Starring: Michael Caine, Brendan Fraser, Do Thi Hai Yen, Tzi Ma, Pham Thi Mai, Robert Stanton, and Rade Serbedzija

Michael Caine earned a Best Actor Oscar nomination for his performance in Phillip Noyce’s film The Quiet American. It’s an understated, but rich performance by a veteran actor. However, you have to watch closely as you might miss some of the nuances. Caine plays by hook and by crook, taking advantage of visual and spoken opportunities to develop his character.

Thomas Fowler (Caine) is a British foreign correspondent in Vietnam, circa 1952, for the London Times. He’s also an opium addict with a girlfriend, Phuong (Do Thi Hai Yen). He’d love to marry his Asian flower, but he can’t because his wife back in England is a Catholic who won’t grant him a divorce. Fowler is also resentful of American colonialist encroachment in Vietnam, a French colony. The French military is steadily losing a war against the communist rebels, and the Americans don’t want the country to “fall” to the communists. Fowler meets Alden Pyle (Brendan Fraser, The Mummy), a quiet young American doctor who eventually vies with the older Englishman for the affection of Phuong and creates a rift between himself and Fowler of philosophical, cultural, political, and emotional ramifications.

Caine’s Fowler seems to exist in three phases. Early in the film, he’s quite uninteresting, just another Western dope addict with a Vietnamese sugar mama. Later, he’s a man with a dilemma who is afraid to lose the love of his life to Pyle, a man without his own marital entanglements. Finally, he’s a troubled man, angry at the growing American involvement in Vietnam, at the rising bloodshed and mounting casualties of a civil war, and afraid of what he might do to hold onto what he believes he has. The viewer literally has to watch Caine’s every facial tick and gesture, watch the actor’s eyes, and even scan the flush of his face. The audience also has to comb through the actor’s dialogue and listen to the subtle changes in tone during the voiceovers. Caine’s performance isn’t an obvious powerhouse; it’s straightforward, almost realistic. It’s almost as if he weren’t acting. There’s nothing phony about it, nor is their artifice. Caine’s Fowler is a mystery, and we can never figure him out even when we think we have him pinned. Fowler shifts with the wind and rolls with the punches, and the movie almost entirely belongs to Caine.

The Quiet American can at times seem almost too understated. The film lacks passion and rarely even smolders. It’s the most sedate thriller I’ve seen in years, which is a surprise coming from Noyce who is known for his thrillers and noisy action films like Dead Calm and Clear and Present Danger. Although he allows Caine room to roam, Noyce leaves the rest of his cast very little room in which to play, but they make the most of it. Fraser is an underrated actor who is quite capable of strong dramatic parts as seen in Gods and Monsters. Ms. Yen’s Phuong is too hemmed in, but Tzi Ma and Pham Thi Mai make the most of their small parts.

Caine’s performance makes The Quiet American worth a look, but the movie may be a bit slow for most viewers. Noyce and his screenwriters really underplay the film’s potential for dramatic impact. It’s a good film that has some very nice moments, but Noyce doesn’t really turn up the heat until the end when the implications of the story come to a head and leave us dizzy and shocked. Thankfully, we have a fine actor in Michael Caine to carry us along the slow journey.

6 of 10

2003 Academy Awards: 1 nomination: “Best Actor in a Leading Role” (Michael Caine)

2003 BAFTA Awards: 1 nomination: “Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role” (Michael Caine)

2003 Golden Globes: 1 nomination: “Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture – Drama” (Michael Caine)


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