The Dancer Upstairs (2002) / Drama-Thriller

MPAA Rated: R for strong violence and language  
Running Time: 133 min.

Cast: Javier Bardem, Laura Morante, Juan Diego Botto, Elvira Minguez, Alexandra Lencastre, Oliver Cotton, Abel Folk
Director:  John Malkovich

Screenplay: Nicholas Shakespeare
Review published November 22, 2003

Adapted by Nicholas Shakespeare from his own novel, The Dancer Upstairs will probably gain more interest as the directorial debut of actor John Malkovich (In the Line of Fire, Dangerous Liaisons) than for its literary origins or the politics behind it.  It's an uneven endeavor, with enough strong points to call it a success, with a slow and almost surreal build up in story that manages to pique the curiosity but fails when delivering taut tension when called upon. 

Somewhere in Latin America, police detective Agustin Rejas is on the case to try to nab a mysterious uprising headed by an unknown leader named Ezequiel.  Assassinations are taking place among officials, as well as a wave of terror throughout the town, and the police are stymied at every turn.  The military wants to step in and put the country under siege, but Rejas still thinks he can crack the case on his own.  Meanwhile, he takes solace in a subtle relationship with his daughter's dance instructor, providing the only moments of pleasure in a world turned upside down.

The Dancer Upstairs is an intriguing work, a bit beguiling in its meaning, and somewhat confusing in execution.  There's a revolution going on, but things aren't always clear as to how or why things proceed as they do.  For a film all about political revolutions, it's a strange thing to find almost all politics have been stripped out of the equation.  Equally intriguing and beguiling is Agustin's relationship with the dance instructor, with subtle hints as to the relationship between the two different people, and for all the time the two are shown together, not much really goes on. 

Even with the slow movement in the story and enigmatic character motivations, The Dancer Upstairs is still a worthwhile film for a number of reasons.  First, although Malkovich's directing is too loose to perform well as a thriller, as a drama, it also benefits from the quiet time.  There is a feeling of reflection and contemplation to the movie that gives the appearance of profundity throughout.  Perhaps it's only a superficial depth, but it works in a fashion, and in combination with Bardem's complex, Stoic demeanor, you'll be looking deep to catch the subtlety in the characters faces and touches of symbolism. 

By the end of the film, there is an uncertainty as to what The Dancer Upstairs is trying to say, or perhaps stated more accurately, trying hard to say many things but not really knowing how to communicate it.  Bardem is terrific, probably making this worth a look for his performance alone.  The film as a whole however is about as demonstrative as he is, or rather isn't.  Underneath the surface, both appear to have something going on, but neither knows how to express it.

Qwipster's rating:

2003 Vince Leo