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Friday, Dec. 11, 2009

'The Man from London'

It's not much fun struggling through Tarr

Appropriate to the director's family name of Tarr, "The Man From London" is akin to walking on an endless runway strip of newly laid-on tarmac.

The Man from London Rating: (3 out of 5)
Star Star Star Star Star
Brothers grim: Miroslav Krobot (left) and Derzsi Janos in "The Man from London"

Director: Bela Tarr
Running time: 139 minutes
Language: Hungarian
Now showing (Dec. 11, 2009)
[See Japan Times movie listing]

In the light of current popular-culture standards, the film is decidedly viewer-unfriendly; the dialogue spoken by an international cast is dubbed in Hungarian, the visuals are shot in aggressively stark black and white and the story involves an unglamorous, guilt-ridden nightwatchman. But then Bela Tarr has always resisted working inside the magnetic field of commercial filmmaking — it's not that he defies marketing logic so much as choosing to be unaware that such a thing exists.

Tarr takes a regular three to five years to make a single film and these require three to five hours to watch, which is mainly why it's so rare to see them outside the film-festival circuit.

"The Man From London" (which clocks in at a mere 139 minutes) was more than five years in the making, and the project was nearly obliterated when producer Humbert Balsam committed suicide.

It shows in the way the cast almost always seem confused, not really comprehending the story or Tarr's motives, which could be just the way the director works, but this particular picture (adapted from a novel by Georges Simenon) would have benefited from a good dose of clear-cut decisiveness.

Tarr's tortured (and torturing) closeups of seemingly inconsequential objects just when a character is talking for example, speaks of the film's authorship but doesn't do the story a whole lot of favors. However, there is some gorgeous noir-esque craftsmanship to savor — the opening shot is meticulous and somber, a 5-minute-long pan up the prow of a ship that's arriving in the harbor of an unspecified Eastern European city. And to this, Tarr injects the bleakness and sadness-sodden existence of protagonist Maloin (Miroslav Krobot).

From his office window, Maloin witnesses a murder of one of the passengers and later retrieves the victim's briefcase that turns out to contain £60,000 (¥8.7 million). From here on, he swings between reporting the stash to the police and using the money to cut a fresh start apart from his dreary wife (Tilda Swinton) and daughter (Erika Bok). Soon the fear and guilt become unbearable and the story charts Maloin's gradual descent into blackened despair.

Quentin Tarantino would have made short work of the material, leapfrogging into the next segment with more babes and more violence and certainly a lot more dialogue. But in this world according to Tarr, a blue-collar bloke inwardly tortures himself with questions of faith while his drab, careworn wife slaps up an uninspired meal. The camera prowls slowly around their flat and comes to rest like a fly on the rim of a chipped coffee cup.

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