Peter Weir’s ‘The Year of Living Dangerously’, starring Mel Gibson, Sigourney Weaver and Linda Hunt, is an underrated romantic drama set in the backdrop to Indonesia’s political unrest in the mid-1960s when the country was making its transition to the so-called ‘New Order’. The film, based on the novel by Christopher Koch, was, therefore, banned in Indonesia until 1999.
By way of the introduction, the film quickly centres on Guy Hamilton (Mel Gibson), a young, somewhat idealistic Australian journalist sent to Indonesia on the mission to gather in-depth information on the politically-unstable country, then governed by President Sukarno. While there, Guy strikes friendship with Billy Kwan (Linda Hunt), a cameraman, who supports Guy and helps him to gather intelligence for his articles through his personal contacts. Soon, Guy becomes romantically involved with Jill Bryant (Sigourney Weaver), a British Embassy officer. As the situation in Indonesia worsens and Guy and Jill’s attachment deepens, the audience witnesses personal tragedies and new-found joys unfold.
‘The Year of Living Dangerously’ does everything that a film of this genre is supposed to do. It makes a good use of location (be it Philippians, rather than Indonesia, though), taking the viewer through the streets of a foreign country, pointing out its beauty, but, also, its freshly-inflicted “wounds” and hidden dangers. The film also makes full advantage of native people residing there, bravely dealing with such issues as poverty and women’s sexual exploitation. In this sense, ‘The Year of Living Dangerously’ is no worse than any other successful film set in an exotic location, but coming out decades later, notably ‘Seven Years in Tibet’ (1997), ‘The Quiet American’ (2002) and ‘The Painted Veil’ (2006). However, the movie’s best scenes are those portraying the unlucky friendship, a sense of camaraderie, developed between Guy and Billy, as they partner together for news reportages.
The “highlight” of ‘The Year of Living Dangerously’ is, of course, Linda Hunt’s performance. Quite astonishingly, Linda Hunt plays a man in the film, a cameraman, Billy. Hunt performs her job so amazingly well that it is very hard to believe that Billy is played by a woman. Hunt’s Academy Award win in the Best Supporting Actress category is well-deserved here, and, in fact, she became the first person to win an Academy Award for playing a character of the opposite sex. Gibson’s performance is also good in this movie, with the actor just coming off ‘Mad Max’ (1979) and ‘Mad Max 2′ (1981) sets. Gibson’s lack of experience in filming a major movie does somewhat shows, but he manages to pull himself through, because he seems to play “himself” on the set: an adventurous, even though somewhat proud, young man. Sigourney Weaver also does a good job portraying Jill Bryant, although occasionally missing her British accent.
Remarkably, ‘The Year of Living Dangerously’ fared rather badly at the Academy Awards Ceremony 1983, having had only one nomination and only one win. This circumstance is even more amazing when one thinks of the kind of films which were nominated for that year, especially in the “Best Picture” category, for example, ‘The Big Chill’ (1983) and ‘Tender Mercies’ (1983). Arguably, these two films do not even come close to the epic standard aspired by ‘The Year of Living Dangerously’. That standard had actually been nearly reached by the movie. The consolation, however, comes in the form of praise and much critical acclaim accorded to the film at its screening during the Cannes Film Festival 1983.
Yet, something is not quite right with this film. The plot seems to include too many political “intricacies” and issues for the viewer to really care of what is going on in Jakarta. The film fails to impress on the level to which it aspires. It may be a deeply romantic movie, set in a beautiful location, with a war waging on and love blossoming, but it falls short of becoming a truly epic movie. The problem may be the lack of imagination on the director’s part or the “lame” script. However, the definite problem lies in the movie’s failure to connect the audience to the plot more fully, e.g., by explaining the situation behind each scene better or by delving deeper into the emotional states of the main characters. For example, although the chemistry between Weaver and Gibson is good, the loving relationship developed between the characters could have been explored better. Such movies as ‘Out of Africa’ (1985) and ‘The English Patient’ (1996) do so with a great success and without loosing the political overtones surrounding the main love story. Another criticism is that, although the movie is based on a book, and purports to remain true to it, the film’s script could have differed from the book to make the movie-watching more appealing, e.g., ‘The Painted Veil’ makes a drastic move away from the book’s narrative and becomes more engaging as a result.
Despite its negative features, ‘The Year of Living Dangerously’ is still a very good, underrated movie, the quality of which we rarely see nowadays. It shines an excellent, courageous performance delivered by Linda Hunt; and its emphasis on the characters and the story, rather than on the special effects and the “decorations”, is admirable. In this sense, the film still remains “in the league of its own”, to be compared only to the best “adventure” movies. 7/10