Saturday 18 May 2019

Movie Review: The Year Of Living Dangerously (1982)

A drama and romance, The Year Of Living Dangerously enjoys the tense setting of a foreign country on a knife's edge, but sacrifices much of its political intrigue in favour of a trite romance.

It's 1965, and Australian Broadcasting Service journalist Guy Hamilton (Mel Gibson) arrives in Jakarta on his first foreign assignment to cover rising tensions in Indonesia, where President Sukarno is whipping up anti-Western sentiments and fending off Communist threats. Hamilton socializes uneasily with other veteran foreign correspondents, and establishes a working relationship with local fixer and cameraman Billy Kwan (Linda Hunt).

With Billy's help Guy secures a coveted interview with the communist party leader, and then meets Jill Bryant (Sigourney Weaver), the assistant to British military attache Colonel Henderson (Bill Kerr). A romance starts to blossom between Jill and Guy, while tensions rise in the country with rumours of an arms build-up and impending coup, and Billy grows increasingly disillusioned with the Sukarno regime.

Two stories vie for attention within The Year Of Living Dangerously, and ultimately director Peter Weir opts to maximize the romance elements between the naive journalist and sophisticated government agent. An argument can be made that with two alluring and photogenic stars in Mel Gibson and Sigourney Weaver at his disposal Weir made the right choice.

But this is also an opportunity wasted, because the film invests heavily in a sense of place wracked by political uncertainty, and the setting is wasted on what transforms into a pretty traditional and rather unmemorable story of mutual infatuation.

The first half of the film is better. Adapting the book by Christopher Koch, Weir carefully creates an Indonesia beset by poverty and governed by an autocratic President losing his grip on power. With nervous soldiers at every street corner and mobs taking over the streets, Hamilton finds himself a misfit with a group of caustic journalists covering a country in the throes of unraveling.

After acclimatizing to the oppressive heat he latches on to the beguiling Billy to guide him through the political swamps. And the character of Billy, with his secret files, shadow puppets and eloquent prose, emerges as the best thing about The Year Of Living Dangerously. With Linda Hunt superb in a male role filled with complexity and self-doubt, the film occasionally threatens to break into genuinely thoughtful commentary about the third world's complex relationship with great military powers.

But Weir then shortchanges the politics and investigative journalism, as these elements become a distant backdrop to Hamilton and Jill courting each other and pondering the sense of starting a relationship when she is scheduled to shortly leave the country. For awkward periods Gibson defaults to stock angry young lover mannerisms, and the sense of menace unfortunately seeps out of the dark and hot Indonesian nights.

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