'Heart of Darkness' barely murmurs in TNT adaptation

March 12, 1994|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

I'm going to let you in on a secret: Director Nicholas Roeg doesn't know what his made-for-cable TV version of "Heart of Darkness" is supposed to be about either.

I'm telling you this because, if you watch the TNT movie that premieres at 8 tomorrow night, there's a good chance you are going to walk away from the TV feeling you saw something important but are just too dense to get it.

You're not.

For all his talent, Roeg didn't get it either. And, if you want a really in-depth critique, there are postmodernist critics who will tell you Joseph Conrad, the author, didn't get it himself -- that "Heart of Darkness" is considered a great novella primarily because a few generations of white men who teach English Lit in college said it was.

Many persons of color have a different and far more critical analysis of the book and its racial themes. For a variety of reasons, those voices have only recently started to be heard.

But let's deal with TNT's foray into making what looks like an art film.

There's an impressive cast: John Malkovich as Kurtz, Tim Roth as Marlow, James Fox as Gosse, and Isaach De Bankole as Mfumu. There's Roeg's reputation as an edgy, daring, artistic director, probably best known for his work with David Bowie in "The Man Who Fell to Earth." And there's the story itself: Marlow's journey up the Congo River that supposedly reveals the evil and corruption at the heart of man.

Marlow is a colonialist working for The Company in turn-of-the-century Africa. Kurtz, director of The Company's station in the deepest part of the jungle, is sitting on a stockpile of ivory and is rumored to have gone mad. Marlow's assignment is to find Kurtz and bring back the ivory.

It's a two-part film: the adventure story of the journey up the river, and then the character study of the Kurtz whom Marlow finds there.

If this sounds familiar, but you've never read Conrad, it's because Francis Ford Coppola, John Milius and George Lucas brilliantly adapted the story for "Apocalypse Now," the feature film about Vietnam. Martin Sheen played the Marlow role and Marlon Brando was Kurtz.

The problems here are many. First, Roeg is strong on mood, hopeless on the adventure narrative. Coppola used the visual imagery of a jungle to suggest a surreal landscape of nightmare, fever, darkness and delirium. He had a big-screen canvas with which to work.

Roeg's working on a small screen. The images are interesting, but they never feel like they are going to overwhelm you as they would in a darkened movie theater.

And, after more than an hour of hearing talk about Kurtz, the expectations for meeting the mad wise man who has taken up cannibalism are enormous. Malkovich is no slouch, but his take on Kurtz makes the character seem only troubled -- like maybe he'd be OK if Marlow could get him into therapy.

Lots of critics ripped Brando for his bloated body and mumble-mumble Kurtz in "Apocalypse," but the character did seem like someone who had passed into another dimension, a scary one that you couldn't start to comprehend.

TNT's "Heart of Darkness" is ambitious. It's nice to see cable trying to do more than the Amy Fisher movies which the networks have come to be defined by.

But they need to get a little smarter about the possibilities for "art films" when it comes to making movies for the small screen.

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