Mariane’s Labyrinth

Photo: Peter Mountain/Courtesy of Paramount Vantage

A Mighty Heart tells the story of the hunt in Pakistan for kidnapped Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl through the eyes of his pregnant wife, Mariane, played by Angelina Jolie dipped in caramel. Aside from Jolie—who is very fine, though improbably cast—and a sprinkling of idyllic flashbacks (Daniel gazing into his wife’s eyes, Daniel caressing her swollen belly), the movie is clipped, blunt, and grimly realistic. It is practically a policier, although the suspense is mitigated by our knowledge that the investigation will end badly. There’s surprisingly little in the way of politics (the director is the Brit Michael Winterbottom, who’s not known for reticence in that area) and no overarching message—apart from Pearl’s shining example as an investigative journalist. The conclusions we must draw for ourselves.

The most obvious is that in late 2001 and early 2002, we (by which I mean the American media and its consumers) had little idea of the deadly labyrinth into which the “war on terror” would lead us. When we meet Pearl (Dan Futterman, an uncanny look-alike), he’s en route to interview a volubly anti-American sheikh, possibly connected to would-be “shoe bomber” Richard Reid. Pearl is no naïf, but the meeting is supposed to take place in public, in a restaurant; he’s an internationally known journalist—an unlikely target, even as Jew, for jihadists with a message to get out. From a taxi he phones his wife, who’s shopping for a dinner party that night, to say he loves her and will try not to be too late.

The team that subsequently forms around Mariane does not seem promising. Daniel’s colleague Asra Nomani (Archie Panjabi) is of Indian descent and therefore suspect: Some Pakistanis maintained that Pearl’s kidnapping was orchestrated by India to make their country look bad. A Journal editor (Gary Wilmes) is a bit of a nebbish—not particularly hard-driving. Will Patton plays the guy from the U.S. consulate, and Patton has made a career of embodying shifty American officials. There’s no telling which side the Pakistani police captain (Irfan Khan) is on: America’s so-called ally in the war on terror has been unreliable, and Pearl was investigating alleged ties between Reid and its Police Department. The country’s press reports that Pearl is alternately an agent of the CIA or, worse, the Mossad.

But the view of A Mighty Heart (via a book by Mariane Pearl and Sarah Crichton) is that these men and women were finally heroic, and that their combined efforts might have saved Pearl had his captors not been eager to humiliate the U.S. and Israel by turning his execution into a grisly propaganda tool. In the compound (while a woman in a headscarf washes the floors and the woman’s little boy plays in the courtyard), Mariane works the phones and Internet, and diagrams the relationships of the major players. Theories are batted around, leads pursued, cell-phone records seized. It’s a surrogate family. The Captain (as the Pakistani policeman is called) and a contingent of soldiers hunt down men who are links in the chain. Patton’s Randall Bennett watches with approval (bordering on pleasure) as suspects are hung up, beaten, and dunked in water. Given that Winterbottom’s last film was the righteous docudrama The Road to Guantánamo, it’s a shock to see him dramatize torture so neutrally. The methods aren’t endorsed, as in 24, but they’re unlikely, in this context, to make anyone yelp about the Geneva Conventions.

Mariane Pearl is French and of partly Afro-Cuban descent—a challenge for a Caucasian-American (even an exotic-looking one) to pull off. It’s hard to forget she’s who she is, but Jolie is a remarkably canny actress, and she plays Mariane with the kind of brusque economy that characterizes the real woman’s writing and public appearances. Jolie tamps down her drama-queen instincts. Her Mariane is not, by and large, an emoter: When someone compliments her for “holding herself together” in a statement she tapes to her husband’s captors, she responds with disbelief. Her only false note is the fault of the script: When she hears of the videotape that documents her husband’s decapitation, she snarls almost at once that she will never see it. Although Mariane reportedly hasn’t seen it, it’s unlikely she came out with the line in the throes of the horror. No one is that self-possessed.

A Mighty Heart does not re-create any part of that videotape, for which I am both grateful and sorry. Winterbottom shows admirable respect for Mariane Pearl and the memory of her husband, but the film needs an exclamation point, something visceral to drive home the fate of Daniel Pearl. In writing about this movie, I finally forced myself to watch that video. Apart from my relief that the actual killing isn’t shown, I was struck by how pointed its message (as articulated by Pearl on-camera) is: that no American is safe. Since then, Pearl’s death has shown up in the culture in myriad forms, if only subtextually in movies like Babel (where Americans appear chillingly vulnerable in the Third World). Even the splatter director Eli Roth (Hostel) invoked Pearl’s murder recently to justify the genre I’ve dubbed “torture porn”—and however opportunistic, he’s not wrong in claiming a link. Near the end of the film, Jolie’s Mariane has the team over for dinner and thanks them for their help. She says they didn’t fail—that the aim of terrorists is instilling terror. That’s what A Mighty Heart, for all its power, doesn’t do.

Having written in college what I consider the definitive paper on D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover (the teaching assistant who graded it did not appreciate its modernist lack of conventional structure, misguidedly concluding it was a stream-of-consciousness first draft spewed out under deadline pressure), I fairly swaggered into Pascale Ferran’s French-language Lady Chatterley, only to discover it was based on the second, rather than third (best known, most banned) version of the novel. It was unfamiliar—the outline similar but the atmosphere much … Frenchier. In Ferran’s film, Lady Constance Chatterley (Marina Hands) does not have the awkward blessing of her husband, Sir Clifford (Hippolyte Girardot), paralyzed in World War I, to conceive an heir with another man before she embarks on her hungry affair with the gamekeeper, here called Oliver Parkin (Jean-Louis Coulloc’h). And once she does, there’s none of that English self-recrimination that bubbles up even in Lawrence. There are psychological bumps on the road, bien sûr, but you come away with a vision of two naked people frolicking in the forest in a downpour, ecstatically at one with the natural world—which is significantly more temperate than its British equivalent.

The film is supposedly set in England, but when you hear the characters talk about going to Sheffield, they might as well be saying “Planet Naboo”—this is France. Ferran replaces Lawrence’s acid musings about the sexes (especially the clueless men) with occasional intertitles and an unemotional female narrator—very strange. She also stretches the story out to 168 minutes, many of them languorous. I found the first half-hour a snooze, but once I adjusted to the movie’s rhythms, I was completely enraptured. Ferran weaves the love affair into nature, but not in the mystical, sanctified manner of Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain. The look is rough-hewn, the feeling casual yet supremely alert. The director’s glance takes in streams, clouds, swaying leaves; the soundtrack picks up wind, birds, and woodpeckers, the creak of the floorboards as Parkin approaches Constance Chatterly for the first time.

The look is perfectly in tune with Marina Hands, who fits Lawrence’s description of a country girl—very pretty but with curves and freckles, without the refinement (or the cultivated arrogance) of her husband. Once or twice I caught Hands overdoing the ingenuous wonderment thing, but her Constance has nothing of an actress’s guile, and she almost literally blooms before our eyes. Coulloc’h is not what you’d anticipate. His hair is thinning, his face broad (in the Rip Torn mode, but without the randiness), his body soft. What makes him attractive is the fear in his eyes. You see him the way Constance does, encased within himself; you understand why she wants to bring him out. Each sex scene is different—the lovemaking changes as the lovers learn to communicate. Nothing in Lady Chatterley feels salacious. When Constance looks at Parkin’s shriveled penis after sex and remarks how small it has become, you’re not even embarrassed for the character (or the actor). It’s up, it’s down, it’s big, it’s small. It’s au naturel.

Right-wing commentators who fulminate about the absence of God and Holy Scripture in Hollywood movies should be pleased—their prayers have been answered!—by Evan Almighty. Except that—oops—God is a black guy and a radical environmentalist, his wrath reserved for developers and the fat-cat politicians they buy with their filthy lucre. In Bruce Almighty, the Lord (Morgan Freeman) gave Jim Carrey unlimited power, and before the film got drippily sincere, it had a good manic stretch with Carrey doing his spastic-clown number. This one is built around Steve Carell’s mild self-effacement. He plays the conceited news anchor he did in Bruce Almighty, only now he becomes a politician and goes to Congress “to change the world.” Taking him at his word, God casts him as Noah in a bid to kill a piece of anti-environmental legislation. As in the last movie, there’s a good middle stretch: Carell’s hair and beard start growing uncontrollably, and he stammers lamely trying to explain to his staff and colleagues why pairs of animals are converging on him in the nation’s Capitol Building. But Evan Almighty runs out of comic invention early, and the filmmakers fall back on what real politicians do when they exhaust their small stash of ideas: brainless piety.

Nancy Drew opens ineptly (it’s hard even to know what’s going on), and the story line takes its heroine out of her small town to a Los Angeles that looks like outtakes from Clueless. It gets better, though. It’s one of the few tween movies that isn’t in your face; its limpness becomes appealing. Largely that’s because its Nancy Drew is so special. Emma Roberts is another in the Roberts clan—Eric’s daughter, Julia’s niece—and like her aunt, she has oversize features and coltish legs. But she hasn’t gotten slick yet. She acts like a young girl who’s still delighted—as so many Nancy Drew readers were—just saying the word sleuth.

Lady Chatterley’s Lover has sparked controversy in film as well as print. The 1955 French adaptation, L’Amant de Lady Chatterley, was finally released in the U. S. after a 1959 court battle—New York State banned it because it “promoted adultery,” but the Supreme Court reversed that decision. Turns out that the state hadn’t seen anything yet: Though L’Amant was tame, subsequent films would push the limits of propriety, culminating in Young Lady Chatterley (1977) and its 1985 soft-porny sequel, Young Lady Chatterley II. Lady Chatterley “tries to amuse herself with gardener,” reads the IMDB plot summary.

A Mighty Heart
Directed by Michael Winterbottom. Paramount Vantage. R.

Lady Chatterley
Directed by Pascale Ferran. Kino International. NR.

Evan Almighty
Directed by Tom Shadyac. Universal Pictures. PG.

Nancy Drew
Directed by Andrew Fleming. Warner Bros. PG.


Mariane’s Labyrinth