A man's life takes ugly turn for the worst

Fine acting elevates this A&E thriller

TV Preview

August 03, 2002|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

You're a young, good-looking insurance adjuster who's making huge bucks and more or less has life in London by the tail when one day you show up for a routine interview and the guy you were supposed to meet is hanging from a water pipe.

Take note, this is not a good omen.

That's what happens to Lorimer Black (James Frain) in Armadillo, an A&E adaptation of William Boyd's best seller, and Black's life rapidly starts deconstructing from the moment he sees the corpse. Black, full of the arrogance of youth and boundless energy of a young man on the make, is one of the last to notice the downward spiral. Or, maybe he fails to fully appreciate what's happening to him because of his infatuation with an actress he sees in a television ad and starts to pursue despite her being married.

Either way, you're holding your breath in this mystery-thriller, wondering whether Black is going to be able to pull himself out of his nosedive before it's too late. And that's what matters: Armadillo is good enough to make you hold your breath a little, if not actually come to care for the young Lorimer Black.

There is much to recommend in Armadillo. A script by Boyd that, until it goes kerflooey at the very end, manages not only suspense but also considerable wisdom. One or the other is usually enough in most TV movies.

There is also some fine, fine acting by Frain, Hugh Bonneville, James Fox and Catherine McCormack as Flavia Malinverno, the object of Black's infatuation. As you might have guessed from the presence of Fox and Bonneville, this is a very English production. Think Merchant and Ivory in postmodern overdrive.

Nothing, though, recommends this film as much as the performance of Stephen Rea (The Crying Game) as George Hogg, the eccentric, erratic, bullying, brilliant, paranoid, madman of a boss and mentor to Black. I guarantee that if you went to the Charles tonight and paid $8 to see this movie, the over-the-top and around-the-bend performance of Rea would leave you feeling you got every penny's worth the price of admission.

The mystery is not so much in how the man Black was supposed to meet came to be hanged, as it is in trying to figure out the conspiracy into which Black's involvement with the dead man leads him. I give nothing away to tell you it's all about money and the very rich conspiring to get richer. American viewers will have no trouble making the comparison between what the Brit ruling class gang in Armadillo is up to with the vile behavior of American CEOs these days.

The wisdom of this film is in the study of Black's character as this self-made man finds himself face-to-face with the powers that be. His whole life he's struggled to be one of them, and now that he is, will he be able to live with what he's become?

Black is the kind of character study you find in novels or first-rate biographies, not usually on television. One of the tricks that makes him so successful as an insurance adjuster and investigator is adding bits of disguise, like sideburns or a certain speaking dialect, to make the person he is interviewing think they are alike. You can't help but think of Zelig as you watch him at the start of the film.

But you also can't help but wonder whether there is anything to Black beyond the ability to adapt and be whatever it is he thinks people want him to be. Is there a person under all the good looks, talent, money and charm? And what has Black lost in becoming this incredibly successful young, urban professional on the rise?

Armadillo fully explores what Black has lost in terms of his history, family and sense of self. In that regard, by the standards of Saturday night television, Armadillo is nothing short of profound.

What keeps it from being a great film, though, is the easy - maybe even phony - answer it offers as to whether what's lost can be reclaimed. In this regard, Armadillo plays like the most superficial of Saturday night romances.

But, hey, maybe I'm just too cynical. Maybe you can find true love and even redemption in the imagery and promise of a seemingly flawless actress seen in a television ad.

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