A review of “The Dancer Upstairs” by Jeanne Aufmuth

 

Stars: **

Rating: R for violence, language, sexual situations

Run Time: 2 hours, 9 minutes

 

 

John Malkovich’s nervous energy is distinctly evident in his well-crafted, but uncomfortably detached, directorial debut.

Malkovich chose a political thriller for his first spin behind the camera, a story based on Nicholas Shakespeare’s 1997 fictional account of the Peruvian terrorist group The Shining Path.  Problem is there aren’t enough thrills to accompany the bewildering politics.

Javier Bardem is ex-lawyer and idealistic law enforcement officer Agustin Rejas, a noble man looking for an honorable way of practicing the law.  He is surrounded by dishonorable professionals --- corrupt policemen looking the other way as their palms are greased by savage revolutionaries.

As Rejas faces the biggest challenge of his career --- the capture of a mysterious guerilla leader by the name of Ezequiel --- his conflicting emotions threaten to cloud his judgment.  The military’s response to Ezequiel’s tactics is a brutal and ferocious retaliation that creates an uneasy atmosphere of barely quelled anarchy.

In the midst of this unrelenting chaos, Rejas must play family man to his narcissistic wife (Alexandra Lencastre) and his lovely dancing daughter.  Not to mention his child’s ravishing ballet teacher (Laura Morante as Yolanda), in whose soulful sensuality Rejas takes emotional shelter.

There’s an off-putting element to this love vs. country vs. self scenario, a disharmonious triptych that begs a resolution. As Rejas’ core investigation draws him nearer to capturing the man who considers himself to be the “Fourth Flame of Communism” (following Lenin, Marx and Mao), there’s little urgency and a less-than-satisfying payoff. 

Visually, “Dancer” is a stunner, shot with a confident style bordering on pretension.  Bardem is remarkably commanding, filling the screen with a simmering animal magnetism that’s a pleasure to behold when the narrative lags.