A Mortal Blivet

A review of The Edge of Darkness (produced by GK Films, Icon Productions, and BBC Films; directed by Martin Campbell; screenplay by William Monahan and Andrew Bovell from the original television script by Troy Kennedy Martin; distributed by Warner Brothers Pictures).

In The Edge of Darkness, director Martin Campbell has tried to compress the six hour-long episodes of the television drama he made for the BBC in 1985 into a two-hour film. The result is a blivet: ten pounds of baloney in a five-pound casing. No, baloney’s not the word. A genuine blivet is stuffed with what baloney fragrantly becomes after it enters the mouth and takes its winding passage through the alimentary canal. I have used the wrong word not merely to be decorous but because of baloney’s connotation—a thoughtless conglomeration of doubtful meat products devoid of any nutritional sustenance. This comes much nearer to expressing the essential silliness of Campbell’s film. Campbell is, after all, the director of two James Bond films, well-made works to be sure, but high on the baloney index.

In both versions, The Edge of Darkness combines a febrile conspiracy thriller with a blood-soaked revenge drama. The narrative concerns the dark, tangled doings of government officials, nuclear-industry honchos, and environmental terrorists blasting—literally—into the life of a simple, honest man, a seasoned detective named, oddly enough, Craven, who knows next to nothing about the threat they pose to the body politic. Now this is a promising premise. I haven’t seen the television production, but, having read about it, I don’t think I’m wrong to suppose that the original writer, Troy Kennedy Martin, wanted to demonstrate how political machinations on the world stage impinge on private lives.

The series was far more politically ambitious, not to mention ridiculous, than the film. Martin’s script made a blatant appeal to the audience to join with the supporters of the Gaia movement and take up arms to defend the living organism known as Earth against the dread, dead hands of the corporate state—specifically Margaret Thatcher’s England. It was time to save the planet from the depredations that inevitably follow in the train of human interference with nature. It’s to be regretted that the producers of both the television and film versions nixed Martin’s original conclusion. By the agency of some stolen plutonium, Craven was to be transformed into a tree, a sort of ultimate green protest against the vile human world. Few things would have pleased me more than Mel Gibson (Craven) sheathed in bark.

In its blivet form, the story manages to retain some of the environmental urgency of the original series, but this aspect has been forced into the dim background, from which it springs forth furtively and confusingly now and again. In the foreground, the focus is on Craven, a Boston homicide detective whose life is shattered when his daughter, Emma, comes for a visit. No sooner is she through the door than havoc reigns. Since it has been shown endlessly in television advertisements, I suppose I can take the liberty of discussing the opening event that plunges Craven into despair and then transforms him into a vengeful angel of death. Before Emma has had a chance to unpack her bags, she becomes violently ill, and Craven decides to take her to the hospital. As they open the front door of his home, a masked gunman shoots the girl twice with a shotgun, and she dies in Craven’s arms.

When his police colleagues arrive at the scene to investigate, they all assume the gunman was a criminal Craven had inconvenienced in the past. This seems logical but proves wrong, a conclusion Craven reaches when he finds a gun and a Geiger counter among Emma’s effects. Using his detective skills, he begins to piece together the truth. Em­ma had worked as a research analyst at a nuclear facility with the suitably ominous name Northmoor. Having become suspicious that Northmoor’s CEO was doing more than storing nuclear waste, she became involved with an environmentalist group seeking to expose the company for what it is: a criminal enterprise making nukes for . . . well, we never quite learn, although there is a fleeting mention of constructing jihadist dirty bombs. Whether to supply or implicate Al Qaeda goes glaringly, perhaps mischievously, unanswered. I suspect this is one of several instances in which the blivet effect trumps narrative clarity. Anyway, Emma discovered nasty things were afoot, and one thing led to another.

It’s long been the donnée of Hollywood films that corporations are evil, and nuclear corporations unspeakably so, especially because they’re operated in conjunction with the government, which is always suspect, even when a Clinton or an Obama is in the White House. I used to mock this assumption, thinking it the kind of boneheaded reasoning to which the dangerously innocent are given. After witnessing the Bush administration lie to the country baldly and, what’s more, get away with it, I have become considerably more disposed to distrust officials in both the public and the private sectors. A government that can cynically lead its populace into a wholly unnecessary war with the help of defense contractors should not be trusted. Add to this how our major investment banks have been casually betraying the public, and you have the conditions that warrant an all-encompassing skepticism as the only stand one can reasonably take. Don’t misunderstand me. I am not saying that Darkness is a serious investigation of the military-industrial-Wall-Street complex. I want to suggest merely that the premise Campbell’s film has invoked as a plot point can no longer be dismissed as blivet filler, though it certainly smells as ripe.

All in all, Darkness may be a conventional melodrama, but it is worth seeing for its acting. As Craven, Gibson is as stolid and relentless as we could wish. Some commentators have complained that he doesn’t give us his usual wild-eyed Lethal Weapon performance. Well, maybe that’s because he’s playing an aggrieved father. He is completely believable, right down to his r-less Boston Irish accent. Yes, the plot works overtime to manipulate our emotions so that, when Craven inevitably dishes out some well-earned violence, we will be cheering him on without a moment’s compunction. This sentimental trickery would be irritating except that it comes in scenes which are among Gibson’s best: the ones in which he recalls his now-dead daughter as a very much alive child. Gibson’s acting hoists these moments clear of the bathos another actor would succumb to. His naturalness with Gabrielle Popa, the four-year-old actress playing Emma as a child, won me over completely.

Fathers the world over will connect with one scene in particular. Emma comes upon Craven shaving. Seeing her fascination with this manly ritual, he takes some of his shaving cream from his face and dabs it on hers. Then he hands her a comb so she can “shave” away the foam from her cheeks, and they both laugh at the results. This simple moment says all we need to know about his devotion to his girl. And, of course, it justifies in advance whatever excess he will use in pursuing her killers. As the 25-year-old Emma, the beautiful Serbian actress Bojana Novakovic brings a pleasing sweetness to her role. She makes us understand that her affection for her father has matured and now includes an ironic, teasing dimension to accommodate what the young inevitably see as the limitations of their elders. At the same time, she’s no less devoted to him than she was at four.

Danny Huston plays Northmoor’s CEO as if he had been dipped in a vat of olive oil; he’s that smooth. When Craven comes calling on him, he barely looks at the detective before turning his back on him while answering his questions. He explains that his daughter’s position at Northmoor had been a lowly one, speaking with a calculated blandness as he surveys the world through the floor-to-ceiling windows of his grand office atop his high-tech redoubt. He is to all appearances an unassailable man. We, of course, know better.

Perhaps the best reason to see this movie is Ray Winstone, a British actor who specializes in tough-guy roles and who joins Gibson in saving Darkness from its own sentimentality. Despite his working-class British accent, he has taken on the role of a fixer named Jedburgh who works for an assortment of high-level administrators in various American intelligence agencies. He’s the fellow you call on when there’s a bit of mopping up to do. Say a spy goes double, or there is a botched operation with undue collateral damage or maybe a risky freelancer still on his feet after the bodies have stopped bouncing—Jedburgh’s your man. And yet Jedburgh would clearly like to get through his assignments with a minimum of carnage. He is most especially tired of taking out the innocent and near innocent in order to clean up for the many twits in high places sucking on the government’s hind teat. His dead-eyed gaze bespeaks a man who has seen quite enough of treachery and violence. All things considered, he’s at an age when he’d rather ponder the metaphysical.

We find this out while he’s having a physical exam. As his doctor looks into his ears and eyes, Jedburgh can’t resist asking, “Do you see a soul in there?” The sawbones replies that the issue is not in his province. This prompts Jedburgh to sum up matters soulful without professional assistance. “We live a while,” he growls with cold bemusement, “and then we die sooner than we planned.” Now, I ask you, could a soulless man come up with such a succinct statement of what it means to be human and all too aware of the inexorable approach of the end?

There are other indications of spirituality in this aged side of beef. While it seems evident Jedburgh has been sent by his masters to remove Craven from the picture permanently, he recognizes a soulmate in the Irish cop and holds back. For his part, Craven sees both the danger Jedburgh poses and his unspoken kinship. He asks the Brit what it takes to do his line of work. To explain, the usually taciturn Jedburgh invokes with unsuspected literary finesse F. Scott Fitzgerald’s index of competence in tight corners: “the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” And function he does to a very satisfying, if predictable, denouement.

This article first appeared in the April 2010 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.

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