FAR from improving on the original Argentine thriller, this US remake only highlights its many failings
Secret in Their Eyes (15) | Rating: ** | Directed by Billy Ray | Starring Chiwitel Ejiofor, Nicole Kidman, Julia Roberts, Dean Norris
Q: How many critics does it take to change a light bulb?
A: Ten. One to change the bulb, the rest to complain that it’s not as good as the original.
It’s easy to fall into that critical cliché when reviewing English-language remakes of successful foreign language films. We’re so conditioned to viewing risk-averse Hollywood as the enemy of originality that any chance to stick the boot in when a remake goes awry seems like a perfect opportunity to indulge in smug, told-you-so cultural snobbery.
Less remarked upon is the terrible Hollywood remake that exposes the source material for the hokey, melodramatic piece of nonsense it really is. When the Argentine film The Secret in Their Eyes started working its way around the festival circuit in 2009/2010, its feverish reception propelled it to an Oscar win for best film not in the English language. This was despite the fact that its murder-mystery-cum-unrequited-love-story plot was riper than month-old Brie. That it was made with dazzling technical proficiency only upped the irritation factor, particularly director Juan José Campanella’s show-stopping money shot: a technically stunning, formalistically meaningless aerial tracking shot that seamlessly turned into a foot chase through a crowded football stadium.
As I wrote at the time, that shot stood out like a beautifully filmed sore thumb and this sequence, along with the standard pass that subtitled films sometimes get on account of the language barrier, seemed to fool plenty of people into thinking the film was some kind of masterpiece when really it was as vacuous as any bogus Hollywood prestige picture.
Appropriately enough, a bogus Hollywood prestige picture is exactly what we get with US remake Secret in Their Eyes. Primed for awards contention with an American release last autumn, the film’s dropping of the definite article from the title may tacitly acknowledge a slightly streamlined running time, but the film as a whole still plays out in quite hoary fashion, weighed down by a crushing sense of its own self-importance, some narrative contrivances lifted wholesale from the original, and an A-list cast and director packaged together for their collective “Oscar winner/nominee” credentials.
Chiwetel Ejiofor – who gives the only half-decent performance in the film – takes the lead as Ray, a former FBI counter-terrorism agent haunted by his failure to bring to justice the prime suspect in the murder of his colleague’s daughter 13 years earlier. He has unfinished business too in the form of his unrequited love for newly appointed District Attorney Claire Sloan (Nicole Kidman), whom he manages to talk into re-opening the murder investigation having spent the intervening years obsessively looking through mug-shots and realising the killer might have had plastic surgery.
If this already sounds tenuous, it gets worse with the arrival of a dowdy Julia Roberts as Jess, Ray and Claire’s former colleague and the mother of the aforementioned murder victim.
As it did in the original film, the story jumps back and forth between the two timelines and we soon become privy to the fact that a key informant in a counter-terrorism operation in which Ray is involved is the most likely culprit in the rape and murder of Jess’s daughter. The political fall-out from this in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 complicates what should be a straightforward case, which is why Ray is still obsessed with it 13 years on. In a slight change to the original, Ray’s determination to get the case re-opened does give the present day scenes a little more narrative momentum than the Argentine version had, but it still doesn’t really enliven proceedings, in part because it’s hard to buy into a central premise that requires us to believe the police, even in the wake of 9/11, would allow the murderer of a cop’s child to walk free for the sake of some ill-defined tactical advantage in the War on Terror.
The post-9/11 setting echoes the original’s use of Argentina’s Dirty War to explain some of the irrational actions of its protagonists. But evoking images of Guantanamo and the with-us-or-against-us thinking of the Bush-Cheney years doesn’t, in the end, amount to much, particularly as writer/director Billy Ray (who directed Broken Glass and scripted Captain Philips) attempts to pull off a twist ending with some horribly clunky reveals. It doesn’t help either that Kidman and Ejiofor have zero chemistry, or that sometimes the only way to discern which time period we’re in is to check whether Breaking Bad’s Dean Norris and House of Cards’ Michael Kelly – both playing key supporting roles – are wearing hair pieces.
Ray also tries in vain to energise proceedings by replicating that aforementioned stadium foot-chase. Alas, he does so with such obvious and distracting CGI it further underscores how rubbish much of the source material was – and how pointless it has been to re-visit it.
Remember (15) | Rating: *** | Directed by Atom Egoyan | Starring Christopher Plummer, Martin Landau, Dean Norris
Cast as a dementia-addled widower on a mission to track down the German officer responsible for killing his family in Auschwitz, Christopher Plummer is like the Terminator crossed with Guy Pearce’s character in Memento in this intriguing thriller from Canadian director Atom Agoyan. Using Plummer’s character Zev’s condition as a both a metaphor for the way atrocities can too easily be forgotten and as a compelling plot device, Remember proves oddly gripping as Zev bumbles from one possible target to another with only a letter from a fellow Auschwitz survivor (Martin Landau) to guide him. As with a lot of Egoyan movies, the acting around the edges can be questionable, but Plummer’s good and the film executes its twists well enough.
Chronic (15) | Rating: *** | Directed by: Michel Franco | Starrring: Tim Roth, Robin Bartlett, Michael Cristofer
This unflinching look at terminal illness is tough to watch, but Tim Roth gives a commendable performance as a Los Angeles-based care worker whose professionalism and dedication quickly make him closer to his patients in their final days than they are with their own families. This leads to resentment in some quarters and causes David (Roth) professional problems that are compounded by his own troubled history, the details of which director Michel Franco subtly drip-feeds into a narrative that’s stripped free of melodrama but still packs a punch.
The Forest (15) | Rating: ** | Directed by: Jason Zada | Starring: Natalie Dormer, Eoin Macken, Stephanie Vogt
Game of Thrones star Natalie Dormer acquits herself well enough in this J-Horror riff as an American woman investigating the disappearance of her identical twin sister after she goes missing in Japan. Her last known location is the Aokigahara forest near Mount Fuji, a notorious suicide spot haunted by the ghosts of those who kill themselves. That’s a decent enough starting point, and as Dormer’s character – who senses her sister is still alive – heads for the same forest, debut director Jason Zada does a credible job of creating a spooky atmosphere. Thenceforth the script gets increasingly muddled and sadly the scares aren’t good enough to compensate.
The Last Diamond (15) | Rating: ** | Directed by: Eric Barbier | Starring: Bérénice Bejo, Yvann Attal
This French heist caper has very little sparkle, despite boasting the presence of The Artist’s Bérénice Bejo as the heir to a cursed diamond that has brought her family nothing but bad luck. Yvan Attal co-stars as the con-artist who takes her for a ride but falls for her in the process — leading to an elaborate attempt to redeem himself in the wake of the convoluted heist. Sadly the resulting film is neither breezy enough to satisfy fans of Ocean’s Eleven, nor dark enough to function as a serious heist film.