The Clearing Review
Helen Mirren always seems at one remove from her surroundings. Watchfully intense, compellingly subtle, she looks as if she lives in a world where, somewhere near, she can always smell a drain overflowing. Although Mirren has appeared in a number of films, her star has shone brightest in the theatre and on television where, as the heroine of “Prime Suspect”, DCI Jane Tennison, she redefined the policewoman for a generation brought up with the bland certainties of “Juliet Bravo” and “Cagney And Lacey”. It’s very pleasing, therefore, that in The Clearing she manages to dominate a film which stars those redoubtable mainstays of Hollywood, Robert Redford and Willem Dafoe. The story, a kidnap drama with a couple of interesting twists, is superficially familiar stuff but Mirren is so compulsively watchable, her face a barometer of the most complex emotional pressures, that she manages to make something remarkable out of a somewhat underwritten role and her two male co-stars are every bit as good as you would expect them to be.
Essentially, The Clearing is a slow-burning thriller in the mould of Sean Penn’s two excellent films with Jack Nicholson, The Crossing Guard and The Pledge. Some narrative tricks are also played with the material, something you may not realise at first. Millionaire businessman Robert Redford is kidnapped by hired thug Willem Dafoe and taken into the forest where, he is told, Dafoe’s masters will be waiting for him. Meanwhile, his wife Helen Mirren waits at home, gradually discovering more about her marriage than she cares to know. Finally, she agrees to pay the ransom but a nasty surprise is waiting for her. Very little actually happens, in a traditional narrative sense, but the characters are developed with an uncommon sensitivity so that the viewer feels that the film bears at least some resemblance to life outside the movies. This should be a fairly easy thing to accomplish but time after time we see films in which characters behave in the most alarmingly idiotic ways simply because the narrative line has run out of steam. The difference here is that the writer, Justin Haythe, has given the people in his story some breathing room and allowed them to develop a certain sense of individual reality. In the middle of a forest clearing, kidnapped and kidnapper talk and create a relationship in which they become a mutually reflective distorting mirror. This, while not entirely unexpected, is oddly unsettling and is matched by a marvellous scene in which Mirren, straight-backed with repressed fury, confronts her husband’s on-off mistress. Indeed, such is the dramatic power of these extended duologues that the tricksy structure – the mode of 2004 as epitomised by 21 Grams - imposed upon the story seems oddly insipid. Although Mirren’s discovery in the final act is powerful and the manipulation of our perception of time is acute throughout, the performances are so full of fire that we don’t need an extra layer of protein. To be honest, I felt this about 21 Grams too and I am a little troubled that we might be in for a rash of chronology-challenged films from directors who don’t have sufficient faith in their material.
Although the film belongs to Mirren, who hasn’t been this powerful in a movie since the days of Excalibur, she is well matched with two of American’s finest actors. It’s an odd thing but Robert Redford seems to get better and better as he gets older. As time goes by, he’s learned to inhabit his characters rather than act around their edges as he did in his days of mega-stardom. In The Clearing, all traces of vanity have vanished. He looks old and exhausted while still exuding the magnetic quality that made him a star in the first place. Willem Dafoe is equally impressive as the kidnapper whose loquacity gradually overcomes his sense of duty. Dafoe’s great skill, increasing as he gets older, is for suggesting the hidden shallows in men who pretend to be more than they are. He and Redford establish a rapport which is vital to their scenes together and you slowly begin to see how, in a different world, they might even have become friends. There are subtexts about class, rich and poor and corporate politics here but they aren’t allowed to overwhelm the basic human situation or the difficult decisions which each man would like to delay but can't.
If you’re expecting the ‘gripping thriller’ which is promised on the sleeve of the DVD then you’re going to be horribly disappointed. This is a solemn, serious and remarkably downbeat film, with few obvious thrills, that develops suspense and momentum through character rather than action. But if you connect with the film and the sad dilemmas of the three principal characters, then you may well find it as affecting as I did. It cuts deep into some painful emotions and is, eventually, overwhelmingly moving with a final scene that is delicately underscored by Craig Armstrong’s delicately poignant music score.
As this is a Fox Searchlight production which didn’t make much of an impact at the box-office on its release during the Summer, the DVD is an understandably low-key affair. However, it’s technically pleasing and the extras which are included are generally quite interesting.
The film is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 and has been anamorphically enhanced. The picture quality is extremely good. Although there is a certain softness throughout – a facet which becomes very noticeable towards the end of the film – the level of detail is immaculate and the scenes in the forest show a lovely palate of colours and some very subtle shading. Blacks are suitably rich and I didn’t notice excessive grain or any serious artifacting.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is also low-key but impressive. The music fills out the soundstage very effectively with plenty of lower end atmosphere and the dialogue is always crisp and clear. There’s not much else to the surrounds although ambient noise sometimes stretches across the channels.
The main extras, along with the original theatrical trailer and a highly dispensible preview for the new Robert De Niro movie Hide And Seek, are a three-way commentary track from the director, writer and editor and some deleted scenes with optional commentary. The commentary is reasonably engaging but a touch solemn and there’s a sense of self-importance which began to irk me after a while. All three participants are, rightly, proud of their work but they don’t have much of interest to say about it beyond praising the cast and crew. The deleted scenes aren't particularly interesting either and, as so often, it's glaringly obvious why they were cut out. The video presentation of these is notably horrible. The oddest extra feature is the inclusion of the screenplay as roughly 300 pages of text. If you manage to get through all of this then you're a better man than I am, Gunga Din.
The Clearing is a piercingly intelligent film which is far more intellectually than kinetically satisfying. If you’re prepared to surrender to the careful pacing, then you will be well rewarded. Otherwise, you might want to give it a miss. Sadly, it seems to have bypassed cinemas in the UK. For those who want to give it a try, Fox’s DVD is very good and definitely recommended.