Besieged Review

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A timid English pianist ruins himself for the love of his married African maid.


Over 20 years, Bernardo Bertolucci has come close to succeeding David Lean as cinema's most epic pictorialist. However, Besieged suggests this freedom to sprawl has cost him the gift of swift, sure characterisation that typified his earliest and best work. Echoes of past glories abound in this "piece of chamber music for the cinema". It's as if Last Tango In Paris had jaunted from the selfish '70s to the caring '90s, although the loudest reverberations are from 1981's The Tragedy Of A Ridiculous Man, as blind allegiance prompts an individual to part with their most cherished possessions.

Having fled Africa after her husband's arrest, Shandurai (Newton) settles in Rome to pursue her medical studies. She also cleans for her landlord, Jason Kinsky (Thewlis), a second rate composer. Flustered by his sudden declaration of love, Shandurai demands he proves his devotion by securing her hubbie's release.

Based on a story by James Lasdun, Besieged was destined to be a 60-minute teleplay until Bertolucci decided to expand it. But, unfortunately, all he seems to have added are some musical interludes and long passages of portentous silence when he might have explored the largely neglected themes of liberty, regression, cultural identity and the relationship between the First and Third worlds.

Newton just about copes with her somewhat schizophrenic character, but Thewlis is all over the place as the obsessional swain whose most interesting feature is the name seemingly taken from the equally eccentric Klaus Kinski. Similarly, Bertolucci's restless camera and elliptical edits undermine the narrative hesitancy.

Never wholly engaging, this is nevertheless intriguing. Yet for someone of Bertolucci's magnitude, it's clearly a minor work.