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The Dancer Upstairs (15)



Review by: Jack Foley | Rating: Two

DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Audio commentary from John Malkovich and Javier Bardem; 'Sundance Channel: Journeys with John Malkovich' featurette; 'Revealing The Dancer Upstairs' (21 mins); Interactive menus; Scene access.

INSPIRED by the real-life manhunt for one of South America’s most notorious terrorists - that of Peruvian Shining Path leader, Abimael Guzman - The Dancer Upstairs marks the ambitious directorial debut of actor, John Malkovich, and is a fascinating and frequently challenging piece of cinema.

Adapted from British writer Nicholas Shakespeare’s novel, and set in an unnamed South American country, the film finds Spanish actor, Javier Bardem’s ex-lawyer, turned policeman, Rejas, attempting to track down elusive terrorist leader, Ezekiel, whose clinical organisation is wreaking havoc on an increasingly desperate nation.

What begins as a series of stark messages, relayed via dead dogs hanging from trees, or pieces of dynamite strapped to the legs of chickens, quickly turns into a threat to political stability, following a series of assassinations and bombings on government officials, often carried out by children.

Rejas’ efforts are made all the more difficult by the corruption which surrounds him, as well as the increasingly desperate measures employed by the army in executing anyone considered to be a suspect.

Although happily married, he seeks solace in the arms of his daughter’s dance instructor, Yolanda (Laura Morante, of The Son’s Room), unaware that her secret political affiliations could lead him into the eye of the storm itself.

Despite operating on such a broad canvas, it is credit to Malkovich’s skill behind the camera that The Dancer Upstairs works well as both an intensely moving character study and as a taut and intriguing political drama-cum-criminal investigation.

As such, an air of uncertainty is felt throughout, with the threat of an explosion or murder lurking around every corner and serving to create an uneasy atmosphere for the viewer which exacerbates the plight of the characters.

As Rejas, Bardem excels, doing much to build on a growing reputation following his Oscar nominated turn as gay Cuban poet, Reinaldo Arenas, in Before Night Falls last year.

Malkovich lost out on a lot of funding by choosing to employ actors better suited to the roles, but his choice of Bardem pays rich dividends, helping to create one of the more complex and believable detectives of recent years.

Rejas is an honourable man, forced to confront his own beliefs and aspirations, as he gets drawn deeper into the hunt for Ezekiel and the personal torment and sacrifices this brings.

Yet he is ably served by the likes of Morante, as the alluring Yolanda, and Oliver Cotton, as a sceptical boss, who likens his detective to a latter-day ‘Gary Cooper’.

The look and feel of the movie is also first-rate, serving to heighten the tension despite a somewhat deliberate pacing, while the realistic and moving finale befits much of what has gone before.

Its final scene, in particular, will linger long in the memory, but then this is a film which provides plenty of food for thought and must rate among the year’s finest.

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