Impirical explorer Richard Burton (Patrick Bergin) "the last and noblest of the Errant Knights" is given another biopic, but his impressive civil and social excursions take a backseat to his danger-fraught jaunt into Africa's Heart of Darkness in search of the Nile's source.
Who'd have guessed that the director who made Head and Five Easy Pieces really wanted to be Sir Richard Attenborough when he grew up? Bob Rafelson has evidently nurtured for years the desire to make an epic biopic about the Victorian explorer, scholar and generally amazing guy, Sir Richard Burton.
Rafelson has opted for Burton's relationship with glory-seeking aristocrat John Manning Speke and their tortuous search for the source of the Nile as the centrepiece of his film. Thus we are propelled into their first, ill-fated expedition, startled by a massacre and horrified by some utterly beastly torture, literally before we know where on earth we are. From the start Rafelson takes a curious course between full-blown, gorgeous spectacle a la Out Of Africa with touches of derring-do that would not shame Indiana Jones, and unbelievably appalling jolts of gruesomeness that'll test the bolts on your cinema seat. It is not a happy combination.
Between awesome Kenyan locations where the Africans are not only restless but so whimsically, psychotically savage as to constitute a racial slur the treks into English Society are equally odd. It's Brit Thesps on Parade, in which many familiar faces, costumed to the nines, bear into shot with convivial remarks along the lines of "Dick, have you met Algy Swinburne?" This may Play in Peoria, as they say, but it is overestimating the sang-froid of a British audience to expect it to receive with composure the revelation that Bernard "Yosser" Hill is personating Dr. David Livingstone.
A hitherto unknown Irish actor, Patrick Bergin, is however a marvellously appropriate Burton: wild, reckless and moody, complete with piercing gaze (although it comes as something of a surprise that Burton should break into brogue when roused), lain Glen is also strong as the remote, troubled Speke. Emulating for a time the tradition of buddy movies they frequently save each other's lives on the second, interminable, horror-strewn expedition, tend each other's sick-making wounds (the minute you see the bug crawl into Speke's ear close your eyes for three minutes or you'll be very sorry), squabble, endure and make up prior to an audacious and historically true betrayal.
Fiona Shaw plays Burton's consort nicely in Vanessa Redgrave mode, but gee, was Catholic Isabel, who took 10 years to bag Dick and burned all his diaries and erotic translations in a nanny-knows-best fit when he died, really so abandoned with him before the nuptials? These Big Pictures are just so educational
Another interesting take, notably closer to a gritty truth if still pandering to conventions, on a historical figure who must another ten or so left in him.