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Our Man In Jakarta

August 18th, 2011 · 4 Comments

“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

The Year of Living Dangerously
Directed by Peter Weir
Screenplay by David Williamson & Peter Weir and C.J. Koch, based on the novel by C.J. Koch
Produced by James McElroy
115 minutes

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

What do you say?

Tags: Based on novel · Dreams and visions · Drunk scene · Love Triangle · Prostitute · Reckless Driver

4 responses so far ↓

  • 1 J.D. // Aug 18, 2011 at 7:56 am

    “Weir’s fifth feature film works beautifully as another endangered species among movies: adult drama.”

    Ain’t that the truth! Watching this again recently I was struck by how sophisticated it is compared to a lot of contemporary “adult dramas.” I really love the mood and atmosphere of the film – you can almost feel the heat and sweat of setting – the textures are so tangible.

    This film is probably still my fave Mel Gibson performance and, as you point out, the chemistry between him and Sigourney Weaver is incredible.

    Peter Weir really knocked this one out of the park and watching this film again rekindled my interest in his films – he’s made quite a few keepers and yet seems oddly underrated.

  • 2 Joe Valdez // Aug 26, 2011 at 9:45 pm

    J.D.: A case can be made that Peter Weir is the best film director of all time. He’s certainly one of my top 5 favorites. Weir has worked steadily through the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s and ’00s and hasn’t made a bad movie yet. Green Card with Gérard Depardieu — a rom-com for Disney — might be considered the “nadir” of his career. The Year of Living Dangerously is the apogee. Thanks for commenting!

  • 3 kai // Feb 6, 2012 at 10:05 am

    Such a great film, I love it

  • 4 B T // Apr 14, 2013 at 11:42 am

    I absolutely love this film, this story. Helen Hunt is brilliant in Billy’s role, the puppet master of the two protagonists.
    The US journalists are absolutely vile and uninterested in uncovering any truth about what they are reporting, the country unfolding history, the ploy of the little people caught in a militarist regim, or why the locals despise them, and so on.

    The love story is intense and believable, and Billy’s secret love for Jill and his ‘secret family’ is heartbreaking.

    Overall, a clever and well told story that rings true, possibly because based on a book.

    A must see! If US and UK neocolonialists would be remotely interested to know why colonised the world over hated their gusts, even if expressed in somewhat didactic fictional and simplistic terms…they would be advised to see this, open their eyes and meditate on it all!!

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