DEAD CALM (1989) revisited


 Greetings again from the darkness. For years, I considered this one of my favorite guilty pleasures; however, I now realize just how unfair that label is. After nearly 30 years, this arm-rest-gripping thriller from director Phillip Noyce (CLEAR AND PRESENT DANGER, RABBIT-PROOF FENCE, THE QUIET AMERICAN) deserves respect as a well made (except for the ending), well written and well acted film. It proves that two boats may not be enough for three people.

Terry Hayes adapted the screenplay from the 1963 Charles Williams novel, and the production team, including George Miller, is behind the MAD MAX franchise. Cinematographer Dean Semler won an Oscar a couple of years later for DANCES WITH WOLVES, and his eye brings us some terrific shots … none better than an early view of both boats and an expanse of sea.

Of course the film is best known for showcasing a young up-and-coming actress named Nicole Kidman. She began her career at age 16, and was still only 21 when this one was filmed. Her youthful features had yet to make way for the mature and stunning woman we know today. The following year she appeared in DAYS OF THUNDER, kicking off her Tom Cruise era. In the quarter century since, Ms. Kidman has reached the pinnacle of the acting profession and is a four time Oscar nominee, winning for THE HOURS. She has gained respect for never shying away from tough or controversial roles, and in 2017 has excelled in THE BEGUILED and THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER. Earlier in the year she won an Emmy for her challenging role in “Big Little Lies“.

Ms. Kidman’s role here is as Rae, a mother entertaining her young son by singing “Eensy Weensy Spider” as she drives through a torrential storm that would eventually lead to an accident that tragically kills the boy. Soon Rae and her military officer husband John (Sam Neill) are off on a rehabilitation trip aboard their sailing yacht . Their peaceful time together is interrupted as they spot a stalled schooner off in the distance, and a man frantically rowing a skiff towards them. They help a dazed and profusely sweating Hughie (Billy Zane) on board as he explains how the other passengers on The Orpheus all died from botulism. When John goes to check out The Orpheus, Hughie commandeers the yacht from Rae and heads off leaving John seemingly helpless on the sinking vessel.

What follows is some extraordinary tension and psychological gamesmanship that keeps us enthralled with the three characters. The juxtaposition between the two boats is fascinating. As John’s resourcefulness meticulously brings the dying Orpheus back to life, Rae and Hughie are involved in a mental chess match of life and death between a sociopath and a mother in mourning. There is also a creative manner in which John (and viewers) picks up some of the bleak backstory casting doubt on Hughie’s tale.

Sam Neill was in his early 40’s, and this was four years before his Dr. Grant took the tour of JURASSIC PARK, where no expense was spared. In 1988 he had portrayed Meryl Streep’s husband in A CRY IN THE DARK, and recently his strong, silent persona has been key to the success of HUNT FOR THE WILDERPEOPLE (one of the best from 2016) and TV’s “Peaky Blinders”. Billy Zane, age 22 at the time of filming, makes a wonderfully frenetic entrance in the film. He met his wife Lisa Collins on this shoot – she’s one of the unfortunate Orpheus passengers. He has also enjoyed a long and consistent career, with his most recognizable roles being from TOMBSTONE (1993) and of course as Rose’s jealous fiancé in TITANIC (1997). His cameos in the ZOOLANDER movies are legendary in comedy, and now in his 50’s, Mr. Zane remains extremely busy as an actor.

The tagline for the movie: “When you are in the middle of nowhere, there’s nowhere to hide” is terrific, and the confines of a boat at sea set the stage for a life lesson – sometimes you just have to fight. Orson Welles worked on his version of the film for years, but the project was never finished. Instead, director Phillip Noyce and three excellent actors deliver a taut thriller that keeps our palms sweaty … at least right up until that ghastly ending that somehow leaves me annoyed and laughing in frustration.


 

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One Response to DEAD CALM (1989) revisited

  1. […] And once more back to the 80s, this time with Reviews from the Dark with the wonderful Nicole Kidman and one of her early roles in Dead Calm (1989)… […]

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