Friday, April 29, 2011

Dirk vs. Tom


King & Country marked the third of five collaborations between director Joseph Losey and actor Dirk Bogarde, a fruitful teaming that brought both the spellbinding The Servant and the mysteriously out-of-sync Accident. Add then up-and-comer Tom Courtenay, immediately coming off the twin successes The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner and Billy Liar, to the mix and you have massive potential for another classic from all involved. So why is it that King & Country is simply another film filling the resumés of Joseph, Dirk & Tom, lumped together with another non-descript WWI film on a barebones DVD? Nothing about King & Country is especially bad, but it ends up feeling like a non-event more than anything.

It's not as if fault can be laid on any of the three main players as they do their best to try and make the story of a WWI soldier being court martialed for desertion as interesting as possible. The problem with King & Country is that decades of courtroom dramas have since diminished any impact this story may have once had. Losey tries to hide the story's lack of surprise with insanely gorgeous black and white cinematography. And, more than once, the screenplay tries to hammer it home that "duty" (Does Tom have a duty to serve the army no matter his mental condition? Does Dirk have a duty to help Tom even if he doesn't agree with his actions?) is the overall theme of the piece, hence making this morality film a lot deeper than it actually is. These tricks work at certain points in the film but they don't hide the fact that this whole film could have been a lame subplot on Boston Legal.

If I'm being honest, I was really hoping that King & Country would be an acting battle between Dirk, who has been My Pretend Boyfriend for years now, and Tom, an actor I've been appreciating more and more with every film I see him in. King & Country didn't exactly live up to that dream, particularly since Dirk and Tom are on the same team--unfortunately not that same team--throughout the film (Dirk is the lawyer defending Tom's deserter). Still, the film provides a nice contrast between Dirk and Tom's acting styles. Dirk was an actor of the old school, a true movie star who just happened to be great at meatier roles as well. His background as a light comedian in the mid-50's helps Dirk with his role here as he must ooze charm when pleading the case before the court. His trademark bemused, almost smarmy, grin works as well here since his role as the lawyer is to mock the court for even considering for a second that Courtenay's actions were a crime.

Tom, on the other hand, represents the new, "Method" school of acting. He's more interested in character acting, which you can tell based on the films preceding this film (...Long Distance Runner, Billy Liar) and the ones immediately after (King Rat, Doctor Zhivago). King & Country gives Courtenay the opportunity to play a dimwit, half a beat out-of-time with everyone else in the film. His character, and Tom's acting, is evolving throughout the film as he slowly comes to understand the consequences for his action.

Neither Bogarde nor Courtenay nor Losey are reinventing the wheel here. They all perform their duties diligently, just as a good soldier would do, with the occasional lapse into something more. King & Country is a case where the whole is less than the sum of its parts and it is a shame it had to turn out that way. B

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