If Thandie Newton isn't careful, she's going to get typecastas a drooler.
As the title character in last year's "Beloved," she played a wild woman-child who not only slobbered, but ate like an animaland screamed like a misbehaving brat. She was good at it, too, but it seems this character trait may have been habit-forming.
Now in "Besieged" -- Bernardo Bertolucci's lavishvisual ballet of awkward body language that features little dialogue andintense emotion -- Newton, in a moment of uncontrollable despondency, dribblesout of the corner of her mouth as she cries a river.
In another scene she wets herself, but in context that'sa little more understandable -- as the movie opens in an unnamed Africandictatorship, her homeland, Shanduari (Newton) witnesses her schoolteacherhusband brutally dragged from his classroom by paramilitary grunts andpresumably imprisoned as a traitor.
When next we see her, she's living in a neglected, centralRoman villa as the maid to Mr. Kinsy (David Thewlis), a reclusive, sociallyinept English musician who spends his days tinkling away harmonically atthe ivories and leering at the beautiful Shanduari like a creepy milksop.
But what's political refugee to do? Other than the unsettlingway her employer keeps sending amorous offerings to her basement quartersvia the dumb waiter, she has it pretty good considering what she left behind,and besides, she hasn't many other options.
Making the best of uncomfortable circumstances becomesconsiderably harder when Kinsy declares himself to her in an outburst ofpent-up sexual obsession and begs "I'll do anything!" to makeher love him. This triggers the aforementioned salivation during an emotionalreaction in which Shanduari unleashes her own repressed feelings abouther dire straights. "You get my husband out of jail!" she screamsthrough hysterical, desperate tears.
From that point on, the tension in the house is thickenseven though an unspoken truce of congeniality has formed. Soon Shanduarinotices -- during long shots of her dusting and mopping -- that valuable(if neglected) antiques, paintings, sculptures, tapestries and furniturehave begun vanishing from the house and that her employer is meeting withleaders of Rome's African community. Could he be financing her husband'sdefense?
It becomes apparent that he is, putting Shanduari in aneven more difficult spot, endearing her to her creepy but kind benefactorwhile leading her to wonder what he expects in return.
Bertolucci's lyrical cinematography makes elegant use ofthe run-down old mansion but focuses more on physical mannerisms -- thethings that go unspoken between his characters -- creating a strikinglyvivid relationship between two people who barely exchange words (the firstdialogue is almost 25 minutes into the movie). He establishes events, motivesand emotions quickly and effectively with potent symbology like the husband'sabduction and the frequent use of the villa's steep spiral staircase toplace Newton and Thewlis often in the same room, but so intentionally farapart.
Newton and Thewlis ("Seven Years in Tibet") are perfect choices forsuch near-silent roles as the both have a distinct physical presence thatspeaks volumes with little more than a glance. Newton gives one of herby now trademarked raw performances of undiluted emotion (and bodily fluids),struggling to make sense of the feelings she develops for Thewlis in thewake of his sacrifices on her behalf. For his part, Thewlis brings outbeautifully his character's overwhelming insecurity and his manic infatuation.
"Besieged" is vexed by the areas Bertolucci leavesunexplored -- the husband is virtually ignored beyond his usefulness asa plot device -- and by a vague conclusion that doesn't resolve the relationshipand invites too many last-minute questions about the characters motivationsand devotion long after we were lead to believe we understood them.
But Newton and Thewlis are, nonetheless, fascinating towatch as they mix beholden romance and extreme discomfort in a captivatingstudy of the subconscious practice of non-verbal communication.
Run time: 25 mins
Contactmusic.com: 3 / 5
Director: Bernardo Bertolucci
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