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The Prisoner (February 21/04)

The Prisoner takes a potentially intriguing and electrifying subject - a cardinal is forced to endure months of harsh interrogation - and squanders it with hopelessly theatrical dialogue and over-the-top performances.

The film is set in an unknown Communist country (a country where everyone speaks with a British accent, but nevermind), where a prominent cardinal (Alec Guinness) has just been arrested for treason. His interrogator (Jack Hawkins) is someone that the cardinal knows quite well, as the two fought against the Nazis in the Second World War. Attempts to break the cardinal are poorly received, but as the months pass, the interrogator (names are never revealed) begins utilizing various methods and begins to make an impact. The film occasionally cuts to a romance between a guard (Ronald Lewis) and a married woman (Jeanette Sterke), but the subplot is quickly forgotten and abandoned.

That The Prisoner is based on a play comes as no surprise, as the movie rarely leaves the confines of the interrogation room. This could've been a fascinating look at the interplay between two very different men - imagine if Mamet had scripted this story - but Bridget Boland's screenplay utilizes the most stilted dialogue imaginable. These characters are never allowed the chance to develop through their words; every line spoken sounds far too thought out and rehearsed (there's absolutely nothing natural about the things these characters are saying).

It certainly doesn't help that the movie keeps us in the dark regarding just what the cardinal's been arrested for. A lot of time is spent trying to convince him to confess to something treason related, but by the time we finally find out just what he's been charged with (in the last 25 minutes), it's impossible to care. This is a film in which a young boy is shot for writing the words "free speech" on a wall; the complete lack of tension and drama is inexcusable.

Alec Guinness gives a performance that's more perfunctory than anything else, preventing the audience from sympathizing with his plight. There's a certain amount of distance that's required when playing a character of this sort, but Guinness takes things too far and never convinces us he's playing an actual person as opposed to a holier-than-thou figure. Hawkins is fine as the interrogator, though it's not made entirely clear why he feels such loyalty towards the cardinal. They served together, yes, but his reluctance to really hit the man with all he's got is baffling (they are supposed to be enemies, after all).

Incredibly enough, The Prisoner was banned from the Cannes and Venice Film Festivals. Unless audiences there were offended by the stodginess of the film's screenplay, it's hard to understand exactly what was considered so offensive about the story; there is, after all, a reason the movie's not exactly well known.

out of

About the DVD: The Prisoner arrives on DVD courtesy of Columbia Tristar Home Entertainment, along with a letterboxed transfer and some bonus trailers (The Bridge of the River Kwai, Gandhi, and Lawrence of Arabia).