Ap­pari­tions and Tu­dor soap

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film - Evan Wil­liams

ONE of the signs of a well- made film is that we tend to be more for­giv­ing of cliches and familiar cin­e­matic de­vices. No one would call The Eye a ground­break­ing su­per­nat­u­ral thriller. The ba­sic idea is fairly old and the per­for­mances are un­re­mark­able.

But it’s been brought off with such fresh­ness, intelligence and re­straint that all the old shock tac­tics work beau­ti­fully. Even the face re­flected in a misty bath­room mir­ror — a trick at least as old as Fa­tal At­trac­tion — looks scarier than usual.

The di­a­logue has a strange qual­ity as well. Who would sup­pose that the words ‘‘ nice to see you’’ could res­onate with un­ex­pected irony? Yet some­how they do. When Syd­ney Wells ( Jes­sica Alba), a blind con­cert vi­o­lin­ist whose sight has been re­stored with a corneal trans­plant sees her friends and fel­low mu­si­cians for the first time at a party, ‘‘ nice to see you’’ sounds like a per­fectly ac­cu­rate de­scrip­tion of her state of mind.

The real state of Syd­ney’s mind is a darker story. Her trans­planted eyes are work­ing nor­mally, doc­tors are pleased with her progress. But she keeps see­ing strange and fright­en­ing things. Re­cov­er­ing in hospi­tal from her op­er­a­tion, she watches while the pa­tient next to her is led qui­etly away by a shad­owy fig­ure in the night. Syd­ney not only sees ghosts, but has pre­mo­ni­tions of peo­ple’s deaths. Can she save peo­ple from death if the warn­ings come in time? Should she try?

Di­rected by David Moreau and Xavier Palud, The Eye is a Hol­ly­wood re­make of a 2003 Chi­nese- lan­guage film that ap­par­ently went over well with Asian au­di­ences. Se­bas­tian Gu­tier­rez’s screen­play sets the ac­tion in Los An­ge­les, and re­minders of The Sixth Sense are fairly in­sis­tent. Af­ter a brief open­ing mon­tage of alarm­ing images, Syd­ney is seen per­form­ing on a con­cert plat­form with an orches­tra. A pro­duc­tion note as­sures us that Alba took vi­o­lin lessons for the part and is ac­tu­ally play­ing the in­stru­ment on stage.

Such high stan­dards of au­then­tic­ity are al­ways com­mend­able, of course, but in a hor­ror film they can only be taken so far. There is no sug­ges­tion Alba was re­quired to be blind for her part, and it’s a re­lief to learn that the nasty ap­pari­tions in The Eye are the work of spe­cial ef­fects crews. Much of the story, with its re­peated images of fire, is seen through Syd­ney’s eyes, and the sub­jec­tive dis­tor­tion and blur­ri­ness adds greatly to the sense of hor­ror. There is a re­cur­ring vi­sion of a lost child in the cor­ri­dor of an apart­ment block; later Syd­ney walks through the body of a young wo­man who is run over and killed in the street. We are led even­tu­ally to a Mex­i­can vil­lage, where Syd­ney, with the help of a sym­pa­thetic eye spe­cial­ist ( Alessan­dro Nivola), goes in search of her donor’s fam­ily.

Alba’s serene and un­hys­ter­i­cal pres­ence gives warmth and dig­nity to her char­ac­ter and helps com­pen­sate for the some­what fea­ture­less per­son­al­i­ties sur­round­ing her. Like most hero­ines in su­per­nat­u­ral thrillers, Syd­ney in­sists on liv­ing alone, which is al­ways a mis­take.

I have seen no more con­vinc­ingly haunted fig­ure since Ni­cole Kid­man’s lonely war widow in The Oth­ers . There’s se­ri­ous talk of cel­lu­lar me­mory — the process by which or­gan re­cip­i­ents are said to share the per­son­al­ity traits of their donors — but none of it is con­vinc­ing and in a good ghost story who needs, or wants, a ra­tio­nal ex­pla­na­tion?

The last 20 min­utes, which might have been lifted from a Die Hard movie, do much to shat­ter the eerie and del­i­cate mood. But The Eye re­mains a most ef­fec­tive and pol­ished thriller. Its shocks are beau­ti­fully timed. I’ve had quite enough strange shapes and fig­ures lung­ing into my line of sight with loud crash­ing and boom­ing noises.

And af­ter all th­ese years of watch­ing films I’m sur­prised that such things can still send a shiver up my spine. Un­like most of the peo­ple Syd­ney keeps meet­ing in her wak­ing life, the su­per­nat­u­ral thriller is far from dead.

* * * I DIS­COV­ERED in an old copy of the En­cy­clopae­dia Bri­tan­nica — surely an unim­peach­able source on mat­ters of roy­alty — a re­veal­ing de­scrip­tion of Anne Bo­leyn, Henry VIII’s sec­ond wife and the mother of El­iz­a­beth I. Ac­cord­ing to a con­tem­po­rary source, Anne was ‘‘ not one of the hand­somest women in the world; she is of mid­dling stature, swarthy com­plex­ion, long neck, wide mouth, bo­som not much raised, and in fact has noth­ing but the English king’s great ap­petite’’. So is this an ideal role for Natalie Port­man, one of the hand­somest women in the world?

In The Other Bo­leyn Girl , a his­tor­i­cal soap opera di­rected in fruity style by Justin Chad­wick, Port­land gives us a de­vi­ous and res­o­lute Anne, while the ‘‘ other Bo­leyn girl’’ turns out to be her sis­ter Mary ( whose bo­som may have been a lit­tle higher than Anne’s, since she’s played by Scar­lett Jo­hans­son). Henry VIII is played by Eric Bana, whose naked bo­som is con­fined to the bed­room scenes.

Ap­par­ently, some English crit­ics were an­noyed that the three main roles in this very English drama were filled by for­eign ac­tors, but at least the girls’ mother is played by Kristin Scott Thomas, who gives one of the best per­for­mances.

How much of Chad­wick’s film is faith­ful to Philippa Gre­gory’s novel, and how much of the novel is faith­ful to the facts, is hard to say. My guess would be about half. It’s true that Anne had a younger sis­ter Mary, who was Henry’s mistress be­fore he mar­ried Anne. Mary bore him a son. But when Henry tired of Mary, the schem­ing fam­ily pressed for Anne to take over as royal mistress, en­trench­ing the fam­ily’s power and in­flu­ence. Ac­cord­ing to Peter Morgan’s screen­play, Anne was ruth­less and op­por­tunis­tic, and with­held her favours un­til Henry agreed to marry her. This re­quired him to di­vorce his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, lead­ing to his fa­mous rift with the pope.

Lovers of cos­tumed melo­drama will find the story ir­re­sistible, and it’s fair to say that Chad­wick’s film, while it bears all the marks of phoni­ness com­mon to such projects, has been made with some pas­sion and in­tegrity.

Jo­hans­son plays Mary as the gen­tle, wronged and lov­ing sis­ter; Port­man goes for strong- willed cal­cu­la­tion and sen­su­al­ity, with hints of a fem­i­nist pride that would have been un­likely, and prob­a­bly dan­ger­ous, in 16th- cen­tury Eng­land. Next to th­ese women, Bana’s king seems rather pale and in­ef­fec­tual, though he’s given some good rant­ing scenes to­wards the end.

The nar­ra­tive is punc­tu­ated with har­row­ing child­births, sounds of thun­der­ing hoofs and doom- laden bass notes on the sound­track. Yes, it’s all very hand­some, the cos­tumes are great, and I felt guilty for be­ing bored. But it’s hard to care for any of th­ese peo­ple, and I left with my repub­li­can sym­pa­thies strongly re­in­forced.

In my re­view last week of The Black Bal­loon , I should have added that the co- writer ( with Elissa Down) was Jimmy Jack, aka Jimmy the Ex­ploder.

Melo­drama: Scar­lett Jo­hans­son and Natalie Port­man as sis­ters Mary and Anne in The Other Bo­leyn Girl

Con­vinc­ingly haunted: Jes­sica Alba sees dead peo­ple and much more in su­per­nat­u­ral thriller The Eye

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