The Dancer Upstairs

The Dancer Upstairs

***1/2

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Scripted by Nicholas Shakespeare, based on his own remarkable novel, The Dancer Upstairs recollects, albeit obliquely, the ten year long search for the Shining Path terrorists in Peru. It does so by following the endeavors of military police detective Senor Rejas, played by the ever-reliable Javier Bardem. This was evidently a highly ambitious project to take on, and it is with great skill that director John Malkovich retains audience attention throughout his complex, winding tale. That said, however, The Dancer Upstairs ought to have been better still. It is difficult to admire it without feeling sorry for what was lost.

This film's failings are not due to divergence from the book, nor to an insufficient understanding of the politics, philosophies and social experiences of those involved. They are, ultimately, down to distributors' constraints on running time. At least half an hour of footage had to be slashed before release. Due to the manner in which the plot develops, with vital information often hidden in small incidents, this must have been incredibly difficult to do; what has gone, inevitably, is the personal aspect of the film: the love story between Rejas and his daughter's dance teacher, and also his relationships with family and friends. Though still noted, these don't carry anything like the emotional impact which they should, and that, in turn, undermines audience understanding of Rejas motives and priorities. Vital to a philosophical understanding of the film is an awareness of the difference between Rejas' approach to life and that of the terrorists, which hinges on his devotion to the people in his life, as compared with their willingness to sacrifice everything for a cause. The one point where this does come through strongly is in his relationship with his daughter, with the young actress turning in a superb performance despite having hardly any lines. It is a pity that Rejas' internal conflicts between his feelings for his family and for the dance teacher are never explored.

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Where the film really scores is with its brave exploration of the phenomenon of terrorism, how terrorism can take root in a society and earn its support, and how its supporters might justify it - all this without ever losing sight of the hideousness of its effects. It is a daring thing to do, in the current political climate, to demonstrate the ease with which such acts might be carried out, and the fact that absolutely anyone, even small children, might be willing to perpetrate them. After one notable montage of atrocities, a hand is shown leaving a can on a bench; no explosion is seen to follow, which only serves to emphasise that one never can tell at all which ordinary actions might in fact be dangerous. The only thing we can do to combat this, the story suggests, is to invest in our society and in one another, so that the motive to behave violently is overridden by other concerns; yet how easy can this be, in a thoroughly corrupt society?

Although it never quite makes the impact it should, The Dancer Upstairs is an intelligent and provocative film deserving of a wider audience than it is likely to get.

Reviewed on: 27 Jun 2007
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Javier Bardem is the cop who searches for a revolutionary leader in a South American republic.
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Angus Wolfe Murray ***1/2

Director: John Malkovich

Writer: Nicholas Shakespeare, based on the novel by Nicholas Shakespeare

Starring: Javier Bardem, Juan Diego Botto, Laura Morante. Elvira Minguez, Alexandra Lencastre, Oliver Cotton, Abel Folk, Wolframio Sinue, Marie-Anne Verganza

Year: 2002

Runtime: 124 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: Spain/US

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