A review of “The Quiet American” by Jeanne Aufmuth

 

Stars: *** 1/2

Rating: R for violence, adult situations

Run Time: 1 hour, 41 minutes

 

 

Michael Caine gives an Oscar-worthy (and Oscar nominated) performance in this steely adaptation of Graham Greene’s classic 1955 novel of political, sexual, and cultural treachery.

Lovely, searing images of pre-war 1952 Vietnam underplay the story of veteran London Times correspondent Thomas Fowler (Caine), a dispassionate ex-pat who’s made a comfortable home for himself in Saigon, in large part due to gorgeous young mistress Phuong (Do Thi Hai Yen).  Enter naively optimistic economic/medical aid worker Alden Pyle (Brendan Fraser), who gradually turns persona non grata when he falls for Phuong and makes a blatant play for her.

This thorny love triangle is fraught with bitter emotion.  Fowler has an English wife back home who won’t divorce him, and Phuong’s eldest sister sees Phuong as a rare prize worthy of only the most eligible suitor (Pyle, in this case). Fowler wants nothing more than to be to “essential” to Phuong, and his desperation under the circumstances is dramatically palpable.

While competitive passions rage, Fowler and Pyle jockey for political one-upmanship in a tempestuous Southeast Asian atmosphere teeming with uneasy tension.  The mild-mannered Pyle manages to ooze Ugly American by virtue of his confident convictions and our prescient knowledge of future American foreign policy. The film is subtly critical of a U.S. presence in Vietnam – that fine subtly lends a fascinating shade of apprehension to the proceedings.

Fowler’s raspy narration gives voice to aforementioned sinister political undertones and blossoming character arcs. Director Philip Noyce (“Rabbit-Proof Fence”) has crafted a taut, spare picture that captures all of the hurt, betrayal and moral ambiguity of the times, swaddled in the elegance of French-controlled Saigon and its graceful people. Only Fraser seems a beat behind, ill-fitting the refined backdrop and stiffening the pace with his shifty sincerity.