Jack Celliers: "What a funny face. Beautiful eyes..."
There are a number of reasons I didn't watch this to write a review last time I rewatched all my Bowie movies. The biggest being: this film is brutal.
Before I put it on again I ran through, in my mind, all the other prisoner of war movies I'd watched. I decided A Town Like Alice was worse because of the crucifixtion. Upon watching Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence, I've revised that opinion. A Town Like Alice is a hard watch but it offers you something, right at the end; redemption. Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence offers no such concessions. It is an unflinching, critical, damning representation of war.
Everyone is brutalised. Everyone loses their minds. Everyone is lesser for war. Everyone loses.
Against such a backdrop it feels almost trite to talk about the acting. But I will plough on regardless.
David Bowie isn't the star of the show. The stars, the backs upon whom the movie is carried, are Hara and the titular Lawrence. But I do think Bowie is perfectly cast for the repressed, guilty, self-destrcutive, honorable, uncompromising, Celliers. He is a madman in a world of manmen so it doesn't show. He is flamboyantly and quietly resistant. I think it may be the best cast and best acted of all of Bowie's roles. Save, perhaps, for Labyrinth.
I understand Bowie was cast on the strength of his performance in The Elephant Man, which I feel gives him a quiet confidence in his abilties. Even the mime scene (because there has to be a bit of Bowie in there somewhere) is appropriate, proportional. Bowie's character's death loses none of its horror with time. Again, I think Bowie acts those scenes of his 'crime' and death exceptionaly well. Blunt, almost numb. But direct. I remember distinctly the first time I watched this movie I was in absolute disbelief that they could kill David Bowie, of all people, off so easily. Some roundabout irony there, perhaps, to my reaction just 2 weeks ago.
The dud note - and again it seems there must always be one of those - is, for me, the decision to use the 36 year old Bowie to play his past 16 or 17 year old self. Yes, this is Bowie - no, he does not look 36. But does he look 17? Not on your life. The whole flashback section is badly done but it does provide a visual relief from the desaturated nightmare that is the POW camp. Finally, there's the lingering inconsistency of Celliers being Australian by birth and upbringing, along with a dodgy but not overdone accent up to the age of 17. And then the adult Celliers we meet at the beginning of the film apparently being cockney and in the British army, despite wearing an Australian army hat. BUT ANYWAY.
I must look up Bowie's comments on this role because it is such a big departure from what came before (although perhaps Celliers resignation to his fate does echo that of Thomas Jerome Newton) and it is, in my opinion, such a close study. I'd be interested too, to know what interaction if any he had with fellow actor and musician Ryúichi Sakamoto, who wrote the film's beautiful score.
All in all? A carefully made, and heart wrenchingly direct representation of life at a POW camp. This film is hard going, but Bowie and more make it worthwhile.