DEATH BY MISCASTING

If you get your kicks from watching fine performers like Sigourney Weaver, Stuart Wilson and Ben Kingsley attempting to overcome the perils of miscasting, then Roman Polanskis clumsy Death and the Maiden is a must. Until the fall of South American fascism, revenge pictures were usually about victims hunting down their Nazi victimizers or, as TV trauma dramas, the raped and violated going after the perps. With increasing awareness that former fascist governments engaged in widespread terrorism, authors and moviemakers have been churning out like clockwork one treatise after another about human rights abuses. “An unnamed South American country, after the fall of its dictatorship” opens Death and the Maiden—not unlike the coded openings of Missing, Kiss of the Spider Woman, “Jacabo Timerman: Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number,” The Plague and The House of the Spirits. While all these movies suffer varying degrees of miscasting, you cant walk away unmoved by the horror coupling them and made definitive by Kingsleys disclosure in Maiden—actually liking what he did. Did playwright Ariel Dorfman see the play Extremities and decide that it would be the structure for Maiden? If not, maybe Polanski saw the movie version because Sigourney Weaver is doing Farrah Fawcett. Edgy from retributive high, Weaver doesnt whine her wails, as is Fawcetts irritating wont, but Weaver is neither as effective nor as physically convincing. She belies her characters paranoia not only through terrible misreadings—no crackling tension, no real hate-from-the-soul—but she hasnt any anxiety-induced weariness, either. Shes so overpoweringly healthy-looking that her towering presence fosters inappropriate reaction: when the tables turn on her and Kingsley gets the advantage, the disparities in physiques cause laughs from an audience begging for relief.

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