The Dancer Upstairs

on May 02, 2003 by Annlee Ellingson
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In his debut behind the camera, John Malkovich has diverged from the typical actor-cum-director route, eschewing a personal character piece for a complex political thriller. That's not to say that "The Dancer Upstairs" doesn't contain great acting; it does, as Javier Bardem follows his Oscar-nominated role in "Before Night Falls" with another award-worthy performance.

Set in the recent past in a fictional Latin American country, the noirish "Dancer Upstairs" stars Bardem as Agustin Rejas, a cop who abandoned his career as an attorney for a more direct role in law enforcement. A series of terrorist acts, committed in the name of one President Ezequiel, escalates from dead dogs strung from lampposts in the public streets to carefully choreographed executions of prominent government leaders. Desperate to keep the city from coming under martial law, Rejas races against the clock to put a stop to Ezequiel and his followers with barely more than a name to go on.

Meanwhile, stifled by his wife's folly and a life of living paycheck to paycheck, Rejas pursues a romantic relationship with his daughter's ballet teacher Yolanda (Laura Morante). The two storylines collide in the film's climactic scene.

A possibly detrimental choice in "The Dancer Upstairs" is the use of English, aside from a few scenes in Quechua, the indigenous language of Peru and Ecuador. The result is thickly accented deliveries that, to an untrained ear, are hard to understand, although a better quality print in a house with a high-end sound system could eliminate that difficulty.

But otherwise "The Dancer Upstairs" is a mature first film, skillfully balancing tension and humor. (Among the choice lines is Rejas' response regarding the person he thinks might be responsible for the mutilation of the dogs: "I wouldn't entirely rule out a cat lover," he says.) The film is also beautifully photographed, culminating in the final scene in which Rejas watches his daughter's dance recital from the back of the room--her figure multiplied infinitely in the opposing mirrors of the hall, the camera lingering intimately over his face.

Inspired by the arrest of Peruvian guerilla Abimael Guzman above a Lima dance studio, "The Dancer Upstairs" was written by Nicholas Shakespeare based on his novel and filmed before the events of September 11. But given the new political climate and the wider public awareness of global events, moviegoers may embrace this work as a testament to the times in which we live. Certainly indie distributor Fox Searchlight recognized the film's potential, picking the film up at the fest. Starring Javier Bardem, Laura Morante, Juan Diego Botto, Luis Miguel Cintra, Alexandra Lancastre and Oliver Cotton. Directed by John Malkovich. Written by Nicholas Shakespeare. Produced by Andres Vicente Gomez and John Malkovich. A Fox Searchlight release. Drama. Rated R for strong violence, and for language. Running time: 124 min

Tags: Starring Javier Bardem, Laura Morante, Juan Diego Botto, Luis Miguel Cintra, Alexandra Lancastre and Oliver Cotton. Directed by John Malkovich. Written by Nicholas Shakespeare, Produced by Andres Vicente Gomez, John Malkovich, Fox, Drama
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