Based on John Fowles’ chilling 1963 novel, William Wyler’s The Collector is a well-acted and competently made thriller that nevertheless functions as a reminder of some of the inherent differences between the mediums of film and literature. To be sure, screenwriters Stanley Mann and John Kohn are steadfastly faithful in their treatment of Fowles’ source material, making way for an enticing cat-and-mouse game between the two co-leads. But, at the same time, they’re unable to fully capture the persona of Frederick Clegg (Terence Stamp, just barely recognizable from The Adjustment Bureau), whose profoundly disturbing narration lifted Fowles’ novel into the realm of excellence.
Miranda Grey (Samantha Eggar), who becomes the unwitting object of Frederick’s fascination, also loses part of her distinction in the translation from page to screen — indeed, she too narrates part of the novel, inviting the reader to probe the mind of a character who constantly finds herself thinking of ways to save her own life. Unfortunately, for a filmmaker, voice-over narration can only be relied on to a certain extent in this respect, making it difficult to stretch the thinly-plotted novel into a two-hour piece of cinematic engagement.
It is, therefore, the quality of psychological intrigue that separates film from novel — Fowles’ ability to create two honest and immersive psychological profiles is precisely where Wyler’s film falls short. While this is an unshakable shortcoming — the lack of emotional connection with the characters, particularly Frederick, causes the film to feel unmistakably flat from start to finish — the film does have its share of worthy components. The two lead performances are committed and always appropriate — sparks fly only when their called for. (I do find it puzzling that Eggar, not Stamp, was Oscar-nominated. Neither actor really overshadows the other, but Stamp’s task, I think, is evidently the more rich of the two.)
Wyler, too, is capable in defining the aura of claustrophobia, and he also shows a knack for creating suspense. The film’s most gripping scene comes when a neighbor (Maurice Dallimore) stumbles into Frederick’s house during an unusually vulnerable moment. If the film had more of these scenes — scenes that hinged on cinematic strategies — perhaps Wyler could have made up for the psychological lacking. Though, in all sincerity, I doubt this adaptation was ever destined to match the achievement of Fowles’ novel.
Here’s another creepy psychological thriller, this one involving two women who appear to be polar opposites. Notes on a Scandal stars Judi Dench as Barbara Covett, an experienced London school teacher who has handled so many classrooms in her day that she can now afford to operate based on instinct alone. Barbara’s home life is eerily lonely, and she compensates by analyzing herself — perhaps to an unhealthy degree — via a personal diary. Essentially, Barbara embodies the stereotype of the old, lonely teacher — I forgot to mention that she owns a cat — but Dench plays the role to a tee, creating something that, rather than laughable, turns out to be quite frightening.
Sheba Hart (Cate Blanchett), meanwhile, is new to Barbara’s school, and every day of class seems like a struggle for her. Her family, made up of husband Richard (Bill Nighy) and a couple of kids, should be a comfort for her, but she instead chooses to speculate on the downsides of domestic life, which provokes her to begin a highly dangerous affair with one of her 15-year-old students (Andrew Simpson).
The pleasure of the film is not merely the dynamic that develops between Barbara and Sheba — I have to mention, though, that Dench and Blanchett are as well-cast as two actors can be — but how that dynamic reveals Barbara’s true nature. The Sheba character is generally easy to figure out — interesting, sure, but she’s not a wild card. There’s a ton of cobwebs, however, that cover up Barbara’s personality, and as they start to disintegrate and reveal the terror underneath, the film reaches unexpected heights. Kudos should also be given to Bill Nighy, who is wonderful every step of the way as Sheba’s steady husband.
The Pledge is the second Sean Penn film I’ve seen — the other being Into the Wild — and it goes a long way towards confirming that, similar to Penn the actor’s versatile and commanding on-screen presence, Penn the director is a filmmaker who’s unafraid of approaching uncharted territory. Above all, he seems interested in the complexities of his characters, which is why The Pledge offers Jack Nicholson one of his most memorable roles in some time.
His character, Jerry Black, is a recently-retired detective who makes a brief departure from seclusion to solve the murder of a young girl. Early in the investigation, an unsettling character played by Benicio del Toro confesses to the murder, causing Jerry’s associates to close the envelope on the case. Jerry remains unconvinced, however, of the confession’s authenticity, and sets out to discover the facts by himself. If this film was a customary entry into the crime genre, it would still be a good one, but there’s more layers at work here than there seems to be at first.
Penn has assembled a stunning cast for the film which, in addition to the names already mentioned, includes Aaron Eckhart, Helen Mirren, Tom Noonan, Robin Wright, Vanessa Redgrave, Mickey Rourke, Sam Shepard, and Dale Dickey. For the most part, these noteworthy actors have single-scene performances, but they don’t feel like showcases. They’re rooted in the story. Yet despite the big names around him, Nicholson remains the film’s center, both on the page and on the screen. His character arc is a complex and unexpected one, and the actor nails every note of it.
After a while, you might think you know where The Pledge is headed. My guess is that you’ll be surprised, as I was. Here’s the real question: Will you find it a pleasant surprise?