David Bowie shines in an ambiguous POW drama

David Bowie shines in an ambiguous POW drama

Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: With The Railway Man on the horizon, we highlight movies about prisoners of war.

Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983)

A POW drama equally indebted to Bridge On The River Kwai and its director’s prior psychosexual works, Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence finds filmmaker Nagisa Ôshima (In The Realm Of The Senses) blending material from two books by author Laurens van der Post. In 1942, at a Japanese camp, British officer John Lawrence (Tom Conti) shares a contentious relationship with alternately cruel and kind Sergeant Hara (Takeshi Kitano)—a push-pull dynamic that also exists between newly captured Major Jack Celliers (David Bowie) and the camp’s commander Captain Yonoi (Ryûichi Sakamoto). That latter bond is fraught with carnal implications, as the androgynous Celliers seems to be coveted, sexually, by the equally pretty, vain Yonoi. That longing, however, bubbles just beneath the surface of Ôshima’s tale, which proceeds with an ambiguity that frustrates straightforward interpretations of its protagonists’ thoughts and feelings.

Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence drops viewers into the action with little context, and its subsequent, recurring use of long, languorous pans across the camp grounds, as well as its preference for master shots that slowly zoom into close-ups of conversing characters, creates a mood of hazy dreaminess. More than its narrative leaps back and forth in time, however, what truly buoys the film is Bowie, whose performance has a strange, beguiling quality born from the fact that he seems to be working in different registers from moment to moment. Hence he can be angrily confrontational in court, quietly self-loathing as a young student, and—in the film’s finest scene—playfully defiant to his camp superiors by eating a flower.

Availability: Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence is available on Criterion Blu-ray and DVD and to stream through Netflix.