“Some of the more didactic critics asked in their reviews, “What kind of film is this — is it a love story, is it a thriller, is it a political story?’ You could say that it unsuccessfully fails to fuse these elements, but to ask why deal with all those elements together, why not choose one of them, reveals a view of life and films that is very different from my own.” Peter Weir interviewed by Sue Mathews for 35mm Dreams: Conversations with Five Directors About the Australian Film Revival
Extracting the natural resources of Pre-Code Hollywood and refining them into a story vital to his own hemisphere, Australian filmmaker Peter Weir mined a diamond from the rough with The Year of Living Dangerously, a historical drama/ love story/ political thriller whose critics waged wasn’t properly committed to any one genre. Yet this Australian production — financed and distributed by MGM — has proven immune to category, forging atmosphere, foreign customs and sensuality into one mesmerizing throwback. It’s June 1965 and Australian radio correspondent Guy Hamilton (Mel Gibson) lands in the Indonesian capital of Jakarta on his first overseas post. Hoping that the friction between populist strongman President Sukrano and a Communist insurgency might spark his broadcasting career, Hamilton discovers an impoverished country seething with anti-capitalist sentiment.
While the seasoned correspondents (Michael Murphy, Noel Ferrier, Paul Sonkkila) scurry for a political scoop, dwarfish photographer Billy Kwan (Linda Hunt) sees potential in Guy to expose the real Jakarta, where the poor scramble for survival. He forms a partnership with Guy: exclusive film work in exchange for access to the contacts Billy has mysteriously developed in Indonesia. These include British assistant military attache Jill Bryant (Sigourney Weaver) who Billy uses his considerable social acumen to match Guy with romantically. In an effort to protect her lover, Jill tips Guy about an incoming arms shipment that will embolden the insurgents to launch a revolt against Sukrano. Choosing to broadcast this as the scoop he’s waited his career for, Guy takes advantage of Jill and alienates Billy, but as the country descends into revolution, Guy is given one chance to do the right thing.
C.J. Koch’s prize winning 1978 novel The Year of Living Dangerously was influenced by the author’s experiences as an ABC Radio producer and his travels in Southeast Asia. Film rights were quickly optioned by filmmaker Peter Weir. After Koch turned in an adaptation, Weir retained playwright David Williamson to collaborate on a script that hinged less on political intrigue and more on classical romance. Reuniting with rising star Mel Gibson after working together on Gallipoli, Weir chose Australian actor David Atkins to play Billy Kwan. Realizing in rehearsals he’d made a mistake, the director searched for a replacement who met the character’s height requirements. American stage actress Linda Hunt won Weir over in auditions, though even Hunt doubted she could convincingly play a man. Peers in the industry would disagree, voting her to an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress.
Not content to illuminate the corners of a Third World humanitarian crisis as it unfolds, Weir’s fifth feature film works beautifully as another endangered species among movies: adult drama. To put it another way, The Year of Living Dangerously is hot. The screen intensity between Gibson & Weaver is almost as combustible as William Hurt & Kathleen Turner’s in Body Heat; like the tropical texture of Lawrence Kasdan’s film noir, we feel the humidity rising on the streets and how it changes those caught in its wave. A sophisticated screenplay and a spirited performance by Linda Hunt pose questions of individual responsibility to society at large without veering into sermon. Russell Boyd’s medieval lighting suggests uncertainty in the darkness, while Vangelis provided key musical cues to the passion that blossoms from that void.
Rotten Tomatoes “Tomatometer” average among 7,716 users: 73% for The Year of Living Dangerously
Metacritic “Metascore” average among 9 leading critics: 65 for The Year of Living Dangerously
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