DATELINE: Extraordinary Movie
Over 30 years ago, we missed Pascali’s Island, one of those “think piece” movies that have already become an extinct movie genre. It was too good for Masterpiece Theatre in 1988, and it is too smart for audiences today.
It’s a spy story set in the Ottoman Empire of 1908 where a lowly informer, Pascali (Ben Kingsley), toils without much appreciation, stuck in a backwater. Into the mix comes a British archaeologist Bowles (Charles Dance) who immediately charms artist Lydia (Helen Mirren). You won’t trust any of them from the earliest moments.
Mirren was not yet big enough to have her name over the film title, but this is a 3 character drama of high order. Performances are stunning, and direction from James Dearden is top-drawer, and you won’t find a more spectacular setting or production.
It’s apparent that a minor functionary spy is in over his head when it comes to stolen antiquities. He knows he is caught in the middle of intrigue with a Pasha who will execute and ask questions later.
The Greeks are ready to overthrow the Sultan and a bloodbath of revolution is ahead for Pascali, though he won’t accept this fate.
Kingsley is marvelous as the man with nightmares, and spying that borders on voyeurism as he watches Dance and Mirren cavort naked. His own peccadilloes entail the Turkish bath boy who resembles, not accidentally, the 2000 year old bronze boy they dig up and plan to steal.
Kingsley is a tortured soul as Pascali works against himself and ultimately must find meaning in meaningless acts of violence. This is a brilliant film, worth waiting thirty years to see. Alas, there will likely be few more in this genre.
The days of moral turpitude being punished may be over in movies, and in life. This movie hales poetic justice .