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SPEAKING VOLUMES IN A WHISPER

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Phillip Noyce's latest film is actually more than a year old. Shot in 2001 and based on a novel Graham Greene wrote in the '50s, The Quiet American was shelved by Miramax after September 11 for fear that U.S. audiences wouldn't be receptive to its critical (but not controversial) perspective on America's role in agitating the Vietnam War. The film would still be moldering on Miramax chief Harvey Weinstein's shelves if not for the outpouring of acclaim it received at last year's Toronto Film Festival.

But for most of the picture, a casual viewer might believe it to be about nothing more than a love triangle. Michael Caine is Thomas Fowler, a jaded British newspaper man enjoying an extended assignment in Saigon. There he's able to live like an aristocrat, with a mistress half his age, a steady supply of opium, and a few thousand miles between him and a wife who won't give him a divorce. The mistress, Phuong, is the last shred of passion in Fowler's life, and it doesn't diminish his love to know that she wouldn't be with him if his income dried up.

The pair are happy together, but it's a fragile kind of happiness, easily disturbed by Alden Pyle (Brendan Fraser), an uncomplicated, overgrown Boy Scout who's freshly arrived on a humanitarian mission. Pyle is smitten with Phuong immediately, and though he befriends Fowler as a fellow

 

The Quiet American

Dir. Phllip Noyce; writ. Graham Greene (novel), Christopher Hampton, Robert Schenkkan; feat. Michael Caine, Brendan Fraser, Do Thi Hai Yen, Rade Sherbedgia, Tzi Ma, Robert Stanton, Holmes Osborne, Quang Hai, Ferdinand Hoang (R)

ambassador from the West, he makes no attempt to hide his disapproval of his elder's questionable arrangement. The politics and intrigue surrounding the men seem to exist only to give them reasons to bump into each other, to step around each other's sensitivities as if negotiating a field of land mines while trying to capture the girl's heart. If Pyle weren't such a corn-fed idealist, and Fowler such a product of colonialism, you might overlook the fact that their romantic contest concerns not only Phuong's young body, but her country.

There is conflict on two levels, then, and neither one is simple. It's in keeping these interactions from inching toward the black-and-white that the film is so extraordinary; everything about the production works together. Fraser, as in Gods and Monsters, is an intelligent enough actor to portray a slightly dim bulb, but Pyle isn't as one-dimensionally noble as he appears. Caine, on the other hand, is a tangle of impulses and reactions from the start. Desperate enough to fight for a love he knows is insubstantial, self-aware enough to see his own "bad behavior" from a distance, Fowler would have an air of authorship even if he weren't narrating so much of the story in voiceover.

It's the kind of role an actor would fight to get - enough to make you temporarily forget all of Caine's hack work in made-for-TV movies and Jaws sequels - and it isn't hard to believe the story going around that Caine went head to head with Miramax's chairman, shouting down the famously tough man until he agreed to release the film in time for Oscar consideration.

The screenplay is true to Greene's famous dexterity with emotional motivation; as in Neil Jordan's The End of the Affair, fiction matches the surprising implausibility of real-life love in action. There are moments in which Noyce as a director doesn't quite live up to the subtlety of his material: As in Rabbit-Proof Fence, he indulges in a couple of questionable point-of-view and slow-motion shots where conventional set-ups would have done the trick without attracting attention to themselves. But those moments are few in a film as close-to-the-vest as the character for whom it's named. This is a moving, beautifully told story, and it would be a shame if a little hype about its supposed anti-Americanism kept anyone from seeing it. •


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