The Name Of The Rose

The Name Of The Rose

***1/2

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

As thrillers like Angels And Demons explore dark secrets that may be hidden by the Catholic church today, it's interesting to look back at another religious detective story made in 1986 and set in 1327.

Here Sean Connery stars as William of Baskerville, a Fransiscan friar attending a conference in a remote Italian abbey along with his acolyte Adso (a very young Christian Slater). Upon discovering that a monk in the abbey has met a mysterious end, which has sparked all kinds of superstitious hysteria, William decides to investigate, but what initially seems like simple story leads him onto the track of something much bigger. Meanwhile, more people are dying, a scapegoat is needed, and the Inquisition are approaching. With a complicated past of his own, William has a lot to lose, but if he can't uncover the truth in time, the Inquisition's brutal methods will be put to use instead.

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Adapting Umberto Eco's evocative but undeniably dense prose from the book (of the same name) was never going to be easy, but this film manages it well, and it's a great example of how to construct an adaptation successfully. Most of the original story is retained and, whilst it inevitably has to be simplified, great sets and impressive cinematography go a long way to restore the lost depth. Importantly, the theological arguments essential for both plot and atmosphere are still present, and the relationship between William and Adso allows for exposition where necessary without the script feeling clunky.

Unfortunately, the film is let down by its acting. Though Connery is solid and Slater shows a lot of early promise, many of the supporting performances are pure ham. Yes, it is realistic that many men drawn to live in such an environment would be eccentric, but does this need to be conveyed with silly accents and lots of flailing gestures? At times it strays too close to Monty Python territory to be taken seriously, leading its important intellectual discussions to look pretentious and ridiculous. It's a relief that it pulls itself together towards the end, as we need to be reminded that these discussions really did lead to people being hideously tortured and killed.

At an intellectual level, what's interesting about the film is its balance of approaches to morality and virtue. William's passionate search for truth is accompanied by a proud determination to be right which sometimes leads him into folly. Adso, meanwhile, is blindsided by love after an unanticipated encounter with a local peasant girl, leading him to doubt his vocation. His are simpler human failings; he cannot understand why people do not stand up and cry out when they see wrongdoing, even if it would avail them nothing.

Meanwhile, there are monks in the abbey for whom different religious texts have profound meaning, and there is a constant conflict of class. How far should they go to preserve books and knowledge at the expense of the half-starved villagers who must provide for them? It's difficult today to fully understand the value of books in the days before the printing press, so it's probably worth noting that a man with a lifetime's support and training would rarely manage to transcribe more than 12, and that was the most important long term means of preserving and transmitting human culture. When William comes to suspect that a book may be at the heart of the mystery, he is talking about a volume which could have a profound cultural impact. This is very much a battle for the soul of man.

1327. In parts of Europe, the Inquisition would continue to wield power for a further 500 years. The Name Of The Rose presents the Dark Ages at their very darkest, but the issues at its core still resonate today. It's a complex and involving mystery that will keep you guessing; it's just a pity it doesn't fully live up to its potential.

Reviewed on: 31 May 2009
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An elderly monk with a complicated past investigates a series of murders whilst his young acolyte falls in love.
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Director: Jean-Jacques Annaud

Writer: Andrew Birkin, based on the book by Umberto Eco.

Starring: Sean Connery, Christian Slater, Helmut Qualtinger, Elya Baskin, Michael Lonsdale, Feodor Chaliapin Jr, William Hickey, Valentina Vargas, Ron Perlman

Year: 1986

Runtime: 130 minutes

BBFC: 18 - Age Restricted

Country: France, Italy, West Germany

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