This year’s Human Rights Watch International Film Festival is, in part, a celebration of Ariel Dorfman’s lifework and commitment to understanding the psychology of the prisoner of war. The Death and the Maiden author is the subject of the opening-night film A Promise to the Dead: The Exile Journey of Ariel Dorfman, and Prisoners in Time is based on a prizewinning teleplay by Dorfman and his son Rodrigo. Like Death and the Maiden, this 1995 British television production is about the horror that afflicts the mind of a war survivor—here Eric Lomax (John Hurt), a former British soldier who was tortured at a POW camp in the Kanchanaburi Province of Thailand. Fifty years after the end of the war, Eric returns to the region, with his wife in tow, hellbent on revenge only to see in Nagase Takashi (Randall Duk Kim) a man whose face has been similarly weathered by time and grief. Volatile stuff, but Hurt’s performance feels squandered by director Stephen Walker’s fuzzy striving for something more purposeful than a televisual experience. Hurt, a great eccentric actor, seems to always flounder when he tries his hand as understatement, most recently exemplified by the HBO drama Recount, and here he passively agrees to Walker’s idea of the war survivor as perpetual zombie. Because image and sound are hardly ever in sync, the performances are abstracted in an almost Duras-like fashion, and though the story is rife with volatile themes about uncertainty and forgiveness, the narration does most of the heavy lifting. If Roman Polanski made Dorfman’s propensity for psychological self-scrutiny feel vibrant and cinematic, Walker is content evoking the feel of actually lying on a psychologist’s couch. (Preceding Prisoners in Time is Alex Marengo’s Dead Line, also from a script by Ariel and Rodrigo Dorfman, in which a slew of celebrity voices—Emma Thompson, Bono, Juliet Stevenson, Harold Pinter and others—read from Dorfman’s poems about the missing and the exiled.)
Prisoners in Time @ Human Rights Watch International Film Festival
This blog entry was originally published on Slant Magazine on the date above.