Death and the Maiden

Death and the Maiden

3.0 out of 53.0 out of 53.0 out of 53.0 out of 53.0 out of 53.0

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Roman Polanski’s underappreciated 1994 thriller Death and the Maiden confronts a litany of moral conundrums regarding guilt, revenge, punishment, justice, and man’s responsibility to himself and society. Yet for all its heavy-duty thematic baggage, the film (based on the play by Ariel Dorfman, who also co-wrote the screenplay), works best as an actor’s showcase for its three uniformly stellar leads, who bob and weave with the ferociousness of heavyweight pugilists. Paulina Escobar (Sigourney Weaver) is the well-to-do wife of a lawyer (Stuart Wilson’s Gerardo Escobar) who has recently been appointed to head up an investigation into human rights violations perpetrated by the former dictatorship of their anonymous Latin American country. Although the setting suggests post-Pinochet Chile, the story could just as well have taken place in any nation experiencing its first days free of despotic rule.

As teenage revolutionaries, Paulina was captured by a death squad and forced to endure months of electroshock torture and rape, but refused to rat out her then-boyfriend Gerardo. Although her physical scars have healed, the powder keg intensity of Weaver’s performance suggests that this slightly unhinged woman’s mental ones remain. Case in point: when a strange car approaches her home, Paulina’s immediate reaction is to kill the house lights, grab a loaded gun, and hide in waiting. The unknown automobile that navigates the winding road to her secluded waterfront home is the property of Dr. Roberto Miranda (Ben Kingsley), who has graciously given Gerardo a ride home after finding him stranded with car trouble. When Paulina hears Miranda’s voice, she immediately recognizes him as the doctor who viciously abused her years earlier to the tune of Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden,” and sets about putting him on unofficial trial for his crimes.

After driving his car off a cliff, Paulina binds and gags Miranda, demanding that he confess and repent or face death. Gerardo—unsure of whether his unstable wife has incorrectly identified this stranger, or if Miranda is merely a cool and confident liar determined to talk his way out of the situation—becomes the audience’s surrogate eyes and ears, the impartial jury charged with determining the truth. Yet the script’s allegiance is so heavily tipped in Paulina’s favor that the film is unable to keep us guessing about Miranda’s culpability, and Dorfman’s screenplay eventually shifts its focus to weightier issues: How can one determine the truth? Who has the right to take life? Does revenge provide inner peace, or does it only make the original victim the same as his/her violator?

This didacticism periodically threatens to sabotage the film’s mounting volatility, but the interplay between Weaver, Kingsley and Wilson has such a scorching ferocity and rawness that it’s easy to remain riveted even during the periodic detours into clumsy moralizing. Kingsley’s roundhouse climactic speech reveals evil as a beast not easily classified and explained, but it’s not until the epilogue that Polanski unleashes his film’s final, and most powerful, punch—a supple crane shot inside a concert hall that both evokes the inextricable web of deceit, violence, and shame that binds Death and the Maiden’s three crippled characters, and stands as a superlative evocation of how man’s crimes against his fellow man are frequently hidden beneath a façade of everyday decorum.


Death and the Maiden is presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen, and the transfer has a lot going for it. Colors are rendered with precision, no dirt or debris is visible, and edge enhancement is a non-issue. Blacks could be a bit richer and shadow delineation falls just short of perfection, but the overall quality of this visual presentation is very impressive. This disc’s Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo track does a capable job with the film’s workmanlike audio design-dialogue is clear and natural, "Death and the Maiden" sounds nice as a result of accurate fidelity, and although there’s very little in the way of exciting audio moments, the few gun shots and loud crashes come through smashingly.


Besides trailers for the film and a few other New Line releases, the only supplemental material is a series of Internet links accessible via a PC DVD-ROM.


Polanski’s gripping Death and the Maiden shows that, long before Sexy Beast, Ben Kingsley had already proved himself adept at playing psychotic madmen.

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Extras 3.0 out of 5 3.0 out of 5 3.0 out of 5 3.0 out of 5 3.0 out of 5

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  • DVD-Video
  • Dual-Layer Disc
  • Region 1
  • Aspect Ratio
  • 1.85:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
  • Dolby Digital Formats
  • English 2.0 Stereo
  • DTS
  • None
  • Subtitles & Captions
  • English Closed Captions
  • English Subtitles
  • Special Features
  • DVD-ROM weblinks
  • Theatrical Trailers
  • Buy
    DVD | Book
    Release Date
    June 3, 2003
    New Line Home Entertainment
    103 min
    Roman Polanski
    Rafael Yglesias, Ariel Dorfman
    Sigourney Weaver, Ben Kingsley, Stuart Wilson