Review: “The Quiet American”

Floating Junks and dozens of warm lanterns dot the harbour of early 1950’s Saigon as gunfire sparks and echoes in the distance – the opening shot of Phil Noyce’s romantic drama is a good sign of the impressive feature’s most guilty pleasure, its setting.

Not many films, especially big budget Hollywood ones, have shown off the true beauty of Vietnam in the pre-war Indochina era. Even less manage to do it as convincingly as Noyce does here, ‘Quiet’ is one of the most atmospheric films of the year with cinematographer Chris Doyle and some truly wonderous sets and locations showing off the exoticness, sensuality and slow crumble of Saigon society in the years before the war and its eventual fall. Its a stunning backdrop which helps lift an overly long and wishy-washy melodrama, albeit a well performed one, into memorable territory.

Having never read the novel or seen the original 1958 film, I found myself comparing this a lot in many respects to the decent but somewhat underwhelming “The Year of Living Dangerously” which I saw for the first time a few months ago. Noyce’s look may be far more splendant, though the narrative isn’t as interesting – we have essentially a love triangle situation between an exotic beauty (the jaw-droppingly gorgeous Hai Yen Do), the cynical and laid back English veteran reporter (Caine) and a naive but idealistic young American man who isn’t all that he seems.

How the plot unfolds between the trio is quite predictable and the characters themselves, with the exception of Caine, remain quite standard and thin despite the revelations about Fraser. However the good chemistry between the cast helps keep the pace flowing through quite a few dull spots. Fraser’s dramatic turn isn’t nearly as well pulled off as his “Gods & Monsters” outing but its a solid job and newcomer Hai Yen delivers an impressive debut performance.

In the end though this is Michael Caine’s movie and the true highlight of this film is his performance which is easily Oscar calibre and far more impressive than the various serious dramatic pieces he’s done in recent years (ie. a LOT better than “The Cider House Rules”). The character is the mirror opposite of Mel Gibson’s ‘Living Dangerously’ role – here’s a man whose embraced this country and the decadence/benefits of being an Englishman in this exotic world. There’s a peace and yet professionalism about him (esp. when he goes out and investigates events) that result in a quite compelling and interesting character which Caine plays to perfection. Its really a remarkable turn for him.

However the project is not without other problems. For all the controversy over the political subject matter there isn’t much in this that’ll surprise or upset many, whilst the thriller aspects of it has its moments such as Fowler going on a jungle excursion with French troops during their skirmishes with Ho Chi Minh’s Vietminh forces, to a quite tense yet compelling interview sequence with General The (leader of a ‘Third Force’ who may be backed by the CIA).

Yes practically every US character is portrayed as a dubiously motived terrorist, but there’s literally only one or two American characters aside from Fraser and the things they and the agency they work for get up to (ie. arms supplying, trying to establish a puppet government/dictator) have been public knowledge for decades now so the surprise value is long gone. Yes there’s swipes at the US military/government sense of imperialism, and a biting remark or two by Caine about the futile involvement of the US in Vietnam, but it feels somewhat softpedalled – most likely due to today’s worrying political climes.

Yet the faults with the script in adapting Greene’s half century old story are minor compared with the gems the film does deliver on. The performances, the look & feel and the direction are so well-crafted and slick that each on their own would be a good enough reason to see the film, but the fact they’re all combined together make it into a solid movie experience that whilst never successfully mixing its two genres (romance and spy drama), its still a rich and rewarding effort.