REVIEW: Death and the Maiden [1994]

“A midnight knock at the door”

Roman Polanski has always appeared to me as director who utilizes large casts and set pieces. Not quite a crafter of epics, but big pictures nonetheless. Sure his first film, Knife in the Water, was on a small scale—it was his debut. I was thinking more of The Ninth Gate, The Pianist, and Oliver Twist. Interestingly, right before that trio of large productions, he brought us Death and the Maiden, an Ariel Dorfman play using only three characters to tell its story of revenge, deceit, and acceptance. While on the surface it feels very staged and theatrical, the film delivers some powerhouse performances from its leads that keep the suspense high and allow the viewer to really invest in the numerous monologues for their importance to the story and not for their long-winded staginess.

The story revolves around a couple played by Sigourney Weaver and Stuart Wilson. They appear to have been at one time political activists against their government. Due to this, Weaver’s character had been kidnapped and tortured in order to spill the names of her co-conspirators. She never gave in and eventually was released to go back home to her husband. Wilson, a lawyer, has more recently been named to a committee to bring to justice those who had a hand in those atrocities, but with a decree of amnesty in effect, only the ones who are dead. While he sees this as a step in the right direction, Weaver sees it as worthless because she is not dead and wants the men responsible for her torture punished.

We enter the film in the middle of their argument after a kind gentleman on the road drives Wilson back to his house through the rain, due to a flat tire stranding him. This kind stranger, played by Ben Kingsley, arrives later that night to drop off the spare tire he forgot was in his car. With his wife and children out of town, he decided to bring it back late rather than the next day, because he would just be lonely at home. It is this visit which brings memories of her torture back to Weaver as she believes the voice she hears is the man that raped her—a doctor sent in to make sure the interrogators didn’t kill her, but who eventually gets egged on to join in on the abuse. Hatching an elaborate plan to get him to confess his sins and then kill him, making it look like an accident, she begins her revenge. Wilson is caught between his new friend’s kindness and his wife’s strong feelings that this is the man.

Polanski is definitely a pro at giving his audience suspense. Having only a single location to film in and just three actors, he uses long takes, close-ups of his leads as they deliver speeches, and gets some emotional performances out of them. Weaver is very good. I never saw her as much of an actress, besides the whole tough chick persona she gave with the Alien series, but she proves she has the chops here. Always on the edge of hysteria, one can’t know if what she is saying is due to dementia and paranoia or if it truly is her memory uncovering an evil man’s secret. Wilson is great as well, trying to comfort his wife and her captor to appease her rage and help him to lie that the accusations are true in order to expedite his escape. His facial reactions are key to the story because there are some parallels to the man he knows and her story that match-up a bit too conveniently. He is allowed the chance to take the gun and turn it on both characters, at separate occasions, before the film is over, yet his confusion only lets him stand there motionless; he doesn’t know who to believe.

It is Kingsley, however, that delivers a performance full of nuance. His affable nature gets the audience to never consider that he could be the rapist he is accused of being. We are slowly given the conception that he is an innocent man caught in the crazed delusions of Weaver’s character. In this regard, we are the Wilson role, trapped in the middle hoping she doesn’t do anything rash. Also, when the facts start to be revealed, the parallels become too much to not start to doubt Kingsley’s innocence. His duress is real, though, and his fear genuine. The movie’s third act is brought out in three layers, all separated by his fear, eventual malice, and final dejection. In the end, he is the one caught in an emotional tug-of-war and he does it all to perfection, culminating in a finish that suits the story, opening the eyes of all three people to the past and how they will live in the future to come.

Polanski has taken this play and created a filmed performance of it. Closely resembling David Mamet’s adaptation of his own work Oleanna, Death and the Maiden is a tightly woven tale that absorbs the audience in and slowly pulls back the layers of lies to eventually uncover the truth lying underneath it all. His use of the Schubert orchestrations is brilliant and a marker for Weaver’s descent into her psyche and repressed memories. To bookmark the film with a concert of the music is a nice addition as the story at hand begun and ended with that string quartet. From it being the sound she heard during her capture to a cassette version being found in Kingsley car, the entire story hinges on its inclusion.

Death and the Maiden 7/10 | ★ ★ ★


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