Sunday, 30 October 2011

Blu-Ray Review: Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence

Directed By: Nagisa Ôshima

Starring: David Bowie, Tom Conti, Ryûichi Sakamoto, Takeshi Kitano, Jack Thompson

In 1942 British soldier Jack Celliers (David Bowie) arrives at a Japanese prison camp. The camp is run by Yonoi (Ryûichi Sakamoto), who has a firm belief in discipline, honour and glory. In his view, the allied prisoners are cowards when they chose to surrender instead of committing suicide. One of the prisoners, interpreter John Lawrence (Tom Conti), has come someway in understanding the Japanese way of life, and tries to explain the Japanese way of thinking to his comrades, but is considered a traitor.

People talk about movies that deal with the subject of War being futile, but this movie deals with it better than most. There is no heavy handed message. It’s there if you want to interpret it.
The movie also deals well with the theme of how choices made in childhood can haunt a person in their adulthood. It talks about the divisive nature of human beings, who during peacetime and without the complex differences that culture and religion can bring, could form strong bonds and find that they are, in fact, very similar in nature. This is why the title of the movie is very important. It’s not Merry Christmas Colonel Lawrence, its Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence. Only at the end of the movie, do we find out how important this is.

The movie is more about performances than plot. No character is ever allowed to descend into caricature, although Jack Thompson’s nearly does with his take on the role of Group Captain Hickley (Thompson was Australian). Bowie appears out of place and almost more of an alien than he did in The Man Who Fell To Earth; but it works within the overall scheme of things. Bowie reaches into the character’s persona and shares some great scenes with Conti and Sakamoto. Sakamoto plays Yonoi with a mix of quiet and angry desperation as he tries to humanely deal with those he considers to be with little or no honour. As the story reveals, he was more of a compassionate person (perhaps due to his background in psychology) than his peers. Takeshi Kitano plays the brutal camp sergeant, Hara, with great relish and even manages to use his comedic background in providing some of the few genuinely funny scenes in an overall somber movie. Action fans will know “Beat” Takeshi from his excellent Yakuza movies such as Gonin, Brother and also, the massive hit Battle Royale (out on the Arrow label).

One might wonder why David Bowie appears to be the lead character despite the title of the movie. Cynically, it could have been a marketing ploy to sell the movie on the back of Bowie’s hugely successful singing career. That alone would have been alright, in my view, as it would have got more people to have watched this wonderful movie. However, I like to think that it was because of the effect that the character Celliers has on the situation at the camp. He becomes a catalyst upon his arrival, playing on the superstitious beliefs of the Japanese authority. In some ways, Celliers understand the Japanese psyche just as much, and perhaps more, than Lawrence. Through Cellier’s formative experiences, he has gained an insight into his fellow man; an instinct that helps form his decisions, and ultimately dictates his overall fate.
This is not to take anything away from Tom Conti’s role as Colonel Lawrence. He truly shines as a man who is balancing his sense of compassion towards his fellow man, be they Allied Forces or Japanese, and his suffering at the hands of the Japanese in a barbaric POW camp.

Unusually, (for this type of movie) there is a palpable undercurrent of homosexuality in the screenplay highlighted in the obvious; the Dutch soldier and the Korean civilian worker, and the less obvious; Yonoi’s feelings toward Celliers. I’m not entirely convinced that Ôshima had pure homosexual feelings in mind, from Yonoi , but instead an attraction that goes beyond mere sexuality and encompasses a different type of unrequited love: a feeling of mutual respect and recognition of a man who is the Yin to his Yang. Bowie is well cast in this role because of his androgynous look. Bowie brought an ambiguity to the role that is well exploited by Ôshima.

Sakamoto was famous for his work with the electronic group The Yellow Magic Orchestra, and provided a memorable and iconic score for this movie. I’m not entirely convinced that it fits the movie throughout, by providing an ethereal and dreamlike quality to scenes that maybe didn’t need to be as abstract as they ended up.

Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence put forward the view that no one is right in a war. It is about how you conduct yourself, and the strength of beliefs. I believe that this movie is underrated and another that can benefit from an enlightened, modern audience and this new HD release can only help get it out there.
The Blu-Ray presentation shows the glorious cinematography and is a welcome addition to Studio-Canal’s classic catalogue.

Score: 9/10

The Blu-ray is out now and available from all good stockists.

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