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Home Vision Entertainment presents
"Look for yourself. They're all the same. All strangled, then gutted with these staves. Their arms and legs broken and folded back so they fill the space of a child. Ritual killings. No dacoit has ever done that.”
DVD ReviewMerchant Ivory productions are guaranteed to feature beautiful images, meticulous direction, topnotch acting, and wonderful scripts. They do not, however, normally involve stunning action scenes and high suspense. After achieving tremendous success with his partners Ruth Prawer Jhabvala and James Ivory, Ismail Merchant debarked on his own project, The Deceivers. Based on the novel by John Masters, the film centers on an English officer who infiltrates a murderous cult in India circa 1825.
The story here is inspired by actual events. Captain William Savage (Pierce Brosnan) is a man on the rise. The East India Trading Company looks favorably upon him, the natives that live in his jurisdiction respect him, and he has just married his commanding officer's daughter, Sarah (Helena Michell). However, immediately after his marriage, he uncovers a murderous cult. The murderers arrange mass ritual killings in the jungle and are cloaked in secrecy. Despite objections from his superiors, Savage rounds up people and arrests them. One of the petty thieves arrested turns out to be of some importance. Hussein (Saeed Jaffrey) tells Savage of the Thugee, who strangle their victims as an offering to their goddess, Kali. Since the Crown does not believe Hussein's story, Savage must disguise himself as an Indian and infiltrate the group.
The film plays as a sort of Heart of Darkness, with Savage slowly falling victim to the very atrocities he is resolved to eradicate. The events that unfold on screen follow a very linear, perhaps inevitable path that is both awesome and horrifying. I can't say that I was surprised by the plot's twists and thematic content, but director Nicholas Meyer and his screenwriter, Michael Hirst, have created a marvelously entertaining and thoughtful film. It certainly is not subtle, but it is a rare mixture of adventure and startling character drama that is almost entirely successful. It's easy to compare Savage's predicament with Apocalypse Now's Capt. Willard, which is both a flaw and strength. At no time does the movie achieve the heights of Coppola's elliptic war epic, but it had the same effect on me. Savage's horrified reactions to the situation he finds himself in resonated with me, particularly in our time of war. The denouement may be a bit unsatisfying, but everything leading up to it is grand filmmaking.
In no small part the success of the film is due to the crew shooting it. Jenny Beavan and John Bright create a wide range of costumes—from the British officers' uniforms to the Thugs to Sarah's dresses—that help to lend a credibility to the characters, elevating the production above the usually stuffy look of period films. Even more impressive is the cinematography by Walter Lassally, which captures the beauty of India and helps to create tension with its use of darkness during exterior night scenes. However, if it wasn't for the fine acting by Brosnan and Jaffrey, none of this would be of much value. The two actors work well off of one another and help in rounding out their characters—a chore that the script does not do a particularly good job with. Brosnan is always amiable, but he reveals a psychological depth here that his roles don't often afford him. His turn as Savage gives the viewer a point of entry into this larger-than-life story. Sadly, apart from the two leads, the other characters do not get much screen time and thus do not add much to the plot's tension.
What struck me most about the film, however, is its devotion to capturing a little known episode in history and giving it new life in the medium of cinema. There are some flaws in the script, but the strengths in the acting and filmmaking eclipse them and create a stirring adventure that even Howard Hawks would be proud to have on his résumé.
Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: B+
Image Transfer Review: The widescreen anamorphic transfer is an oddity when compared with the other information available to me. I'm assuming since Ismail Merchant was directly involved in the making of The Merchant Ivory Collection that he is satisfied with the 1.78:1 transfer, but as far as I am aware the original aspect ratio is 1.85:1. Either way, the transfer is extraordinarily grainy throughout and since it was an expensive production, it's tough to imagine this is a result of the source material. Otherwise, the picture is solid with good contrast and depth, helping to create a pleasant image. Detail is strong and colors come across nicely, though the grainy print and some occasional print defects make this a less than spectacular remastering.
Image Transfer Grade: C+
Audio Transfer Review: The Dolby Stereo 2.0 mix defaults to a lively Pro Logic surround sound, with an impressive amount of sound separation. There isn't a great deal of directionality, but the musical score and sound effects (particularly during scenes with large crowds) work to create an engrossing listen. Nice job!
Audio Transfer Grade: B+
Disc ExtrasStatic menu with music
Scene Access with 18 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
Packaging: clear plastic keepcase
Extras Grade: D
Final CommentsThe Deceivers is a rather unique and wonderful chapter in the Merchant Ivory archives. Although I find myself more at home with their takes on English domestic life—A Room with a View, The Remains of the Day—this is another triumph in their long line of successes. Although the DVD is not much in terms of supplemental features and the image transfer is awfully grainy, the film alone makes this a fine purchase.
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