Virgil Oldman is a sort of Henry Higgins in the world of antiques auctions. Wealthy and snobbish, he wears gloves when dining alone in the most exclusive restaurants and, though having collected a gallery of priceless female portraiture, he has never bothered to acquaint himself with the charms of the fairer sex.
It is the perfect role for a big star with a penchant for staginess, and Geoffrey Rush fits the bill to a nicety. His silent partner in up-market shonkiness is Billy Whistler (Donald Sutherland), a failed artist with a leonine white mane who doesn’t do much other than secretly bid on behalf of Oldman when a rare and valuable work is presented.
The veneer of the great man’s prestige and practice is cracked when an agoraphobic young beauty offers her estate for sale. This is a baroque and crafty mystery, overwritten, to be sure, and a tad too fanciful for my liking, but inescapably engrossing at the same time.
Director Giuseppe Tornatore gave us the wonderful Cinema Paradiso (1988), but here he has been unable to engender any similar warmth. Cold precision, in cinematography and convoluted plotting, is partly responsible, but there is also the hindrance of some terribly clunky, declamatory dialogue – Tornatore is credited as writer, so we can only assume that his English was not quite up to the subtlety his story sought – while as Claire, the skinny-as-a-rake femme fatale, Sylvia Hoeks delivers a performance that lurches from the wooden to the overwrought.
You suspect that there is a devious scam about to be perpetrated, but it is hidden beneath layers of commonplace Euro metaphors – primarily surrounding the reconstruction of a nineteenth century automaton and the hardly new idea of woman as object.
The sharp hook that drags you back into the scenario just when you think that you’re being berated with strained sophistry is the lady dwarf, whose sense of eerie portent brings to mind Don’t Look Now (1973).
It’s cleverly done, but I didn’t care either way what happened.
~ John Campbell