Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Seek Out Section: The Mosquito Coast Review

Director: Peter Weir

Writer: Paul Schrader

Starring: Harrison Ford, River Phoenix, Helen Mirren, Conrad Roberts, Andre Gregory, Martha Plimpton, Dick O’Neill

The Mosquito Coast was born out of Paul Thoreux’s novel of the same name. The main character, Allie Fox (Harrison Ford), is a forthright “genius” whose disillusionment in US ideals leads him to move his family away from the “land of the free, home of the brave”. He chooses Belize (whose national anthem is coincidentally titled “Land of the Free”) and the darkened jungles of Jeronimo as their new home. Here they build a new community using the earth and forestation around them, along with devices and materials manufactured by Allie. The drive to help him and his family feel rejuvenated from living off the land is an all too powerful incentive that alienates Allie from his sons, daughters and wife. His son, Charlie (River Phoenix), has to become the buffer between his father and the people around him, leading to a great deal of tension. Over his time in a new land, the paradise that Allie hopes to invent starts to look unattainable.

Explorations into the conditions of living are a forté of director Peter Weir. Weir’s job has, in a sense, given him a nomadic lifestyle, leaving his films with an authentic outlook on existing. The Amish community of Witness, the televised, artificial life in The Truman Show and the jungle settlement of The Mosquito Coast are examples of Weir’s most rich and absorbing environments. The latter, especially, that looks at a tribal and utopic land is worlds apart from the settings of Western cinema, but Weir captures it with an assured articulation of its atmosphere.

Working with two past collaborators, cinematographer John Seale and composer Maurice Jarre, Weir competently constructs Thoreux’s vision. The oasis of the jungle is seen as a comforting and perilous place; Thoreux’s inference and Weir’s understanding coalescing marvellously. The bright colours that flavour the first two acts are as lush as those in Jean Renoir’s The River and balanced and lit as finely as Jack Cardiff’s palette in The African Queen (all aesthetically and thematically similar in ways). The legend Maurice Jarre then scores the film with a synthetic and often serene rhythm that encapsulates the moment as much as his Lawrence of Arabia music does. The craftsmanship of the film all-round is first-rate. What’s more, it’s a quasi-adventure story completed with classic practical filmmaking. Some of the film’s beauty can be found from the obvious lack of CGI or special effects – most of what we see has been filmed in a jungle, in the baking sun and over a long stretch of time – and it’s a refreshing sight.

The change in the American Foxes to the tropical Foxes is another recognisable feat. 3 months spent filming and the cast change quite considerably. The muscular frame, mind-set and skin and hair colour of Ford alters astonishingly from the first scene to the last. River Phoenix, additionally, who was 15 at the time, noticeably matures as the narrative transpires. The changes give an idea of the film’s scope, something to be admired in the Hollywood systems of today. 

Ford and Phoenix are given prime attention and mostly steal the film away from the rest of the cast; many supporting roles (including Helen Mirren’s) are hardly allowed proper growth. Furthermore, Mirren’s Mother has a baffling response to her husband at points, especially under the circumstances, leaving her as a clichéd matron. Despite the underdeveloped characters, however, the study of man is thought-provoking. Both worrying and uplifting throughout, Allie’s passion is augmented all the way through and the effects are profound (Ford on top-form and clearly proud of his part in the film). Whether or not you side with Allie, watching his world and relatives change around him is interesting thanks to his characterisation and behavioural implications.

A worryingly forgotten film, there are only a few flaws to this film and a plentiful amount of achievements. Mosquito Coast is in dire need of a restoration/special edition, with a Blu-ray upscale to highlight the art of the film; it may not be as special as the two examples given above, but it certainly looks just as stunning. Sadly a box office flop due to critics bashing Ford’s supposed over-the-top performance, The Mosquito Coast now deserves to be revisited and re-evaluated.

By Piers McCarthy.

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