Thursday 28 June 2012

Movie Review: Legends Of The Fall (1994)

Three rough and rugged frontier brothers falling in love with the same woman, Legends Of The Fall has a compelling concept. The execution is grand and the performances sincere, but the movie tends to occasionally elevate its self importance to pompous levels, egged on by a ridiculously ostentatious James Horner music score that insists on underlining every scene with exaggerated bombast.

Early in the 1900s, Colonel William Ludlow (Anthony Hopkins) leaves the US Army in disgust at the continued mistreatment of the Indians tribes. Ludlow settles at a rural ranch, and raises three sons: the wild, independent and nature-loving Tristan (Brad Pitt), the reserved and business-oriented Alfred (Aidan Quinn) and the likeable easygoing youngest son Samuel (Henry Thomas).

With the clouds of the first World War gathering, Samuel gets engaged to the attractive and lively Susannah (Julia Ormond). She comes to live at the ranch ahead of the wedding, and the war interferes: all three brothers head out to Europe, but not before a dangerous and eternal spark of lust is ignited between Tristan and Susannah. Samuel never makes it back from the war; Tristan does come back carrying a huge load of guilt, and Alfred returns carrying a leg injury. Alfred tries to gain the affection of Susannah, but she decides to wait for Tristan to sort out his life, in what proves to be a long, convoluted and tragic journey that will climax back at the ranch, with the dramatic intervention of the now semi-infirm Colonel Ludlow.

There are no small and intimate moments in this film. Director Edward Zwick assembles Legends Of The Fall in the spirit of an opulent opera. The characters, the scenery, the sacrifice, the love, the lust and the loss are all larger than life. While this is visually and artistically tolerable and in the case of the cinematography often outstanding, the music does grate. Horner and Zwick do not trust the narrative to hold its own power, and insist on layering the soaring music at every opportunity, a childish ploy that gets old within the first 15 minutes of the total 133 minute running time.

Brad Pitt shines in one of his star-making roles. He is undoubtedly magnetic as Tristan, long golden hair flowing in the wind, a tortured and misunderstood soul who can bring a woman to her knees with a single rugged yet tender look. His frequent departures to pursue wild adventures and equally frequent heroic returns to his father's ranch provide Zwick with countless opportunities to stage for Pitt elaborate and theatrical entrances back to the centre of the drama, often on horseback.

The only cast member able to match Pitt's gravity pull is Anthony Hopkins, the veteran dominating the early scenes as the family patron, and later overcoming a stroke to still express his opinion and impose his will with impressive domination. Aidan Quinn and Henry Thomas mostly melt into the shadows of Pitt and Hopkins. Julia Ormond is a rather dormant catalyst, her mere presence enough to ignite either love or lust in all three brothers. Zwick and screenwriters Susan Shilliday and William Wittliff neglect to provide her with much of a personality or memorable backstory to justify the torrent of hormones.

In amongst the unfolding brotherly bitterness, Legends Of The Fall finds time to add to its sprawling narrative a sympathetic portrayal of Indian characters. Colonel Ludlow goes out of his way to rectify the sins of his government by being hospitable and friendly to the natives, with his sons (especially Tristan) following his example.

Legends Of The Fall achieves the desired status of weighty drama and convoluted romance. It is not quite legendary, and the scales are sometimes tipped towards overweight and overbearing. But there is enough muscle and visual appeal to maintain impressive forward momentum.

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