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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Marvel at what Roman Polanski can do with four walls and a strong play

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Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: In anticipation of Captain Phillips, we recommend movies about hostage situations.


Death And The Maiden (1994)

One of the raps on awards shows is that they end up comparing apples and oranges: How can you judge one director’s intimate character drama against another’s action spectacle? To really see who’s the best, the argument goes, you’d have to give each director the same script and see how they progress from the same starting point. Truth be told, it’s a bit of a silly idea, but here’s a slightly more sensible spin: Give each director a room and see what they can do with it. Nothing shows off a filmmaker’s ability (or inability) to transform space better than when they don’t have much of it to work with.

By that standard, and plenty of others, Roman Polanski is one of the world’s great directors. In Death And The Maiden, as in his underestimated Carnage, he takes the single-set world of a stage play and turns it into a battleground big enough to accommodate a Napoleonic array of tactics. Polanski doesn’t “open up” Ariel Dorfman’s play, in which Sigourney Weaver’s former political prisoner turns the tables on the man (Ben Kingsley) she believes tortured her in jail. Instead, he gets inside it, feeding off the confinement of the house shared by Weaver and husband Stuart Wilson, who was responsible for bringing home their most unwelcome guest.

There’s a deliberate and troubling ambiguity to Death And The Maiden’s source material, which constantly casts doubt on the authority of Weaver’s one-woman truth-and-reconciliation committee. She never saw enough of her tormentor to be entirely certain of his identity, and the former regime (not identified but clearly modeled on Dorfman’s native Argentina) covered its tracks well, so it’s left unclear for much of the film whether the man tied up in her living room is the one who’s voice she says she’s never forgotten. Rafael Yglesias’ script removed some of the doubt in the final moments, but we’re left with a chilling unease and the sense that nothing will ever be certain again.

Availability: Death And The Maiden is available on DVD, which can obtained through Netflix, and for rental or purchase through the major digital services.