BR: Eye of the Needle (1981)

November 8, 2016 | By

EyeOfTheNeedleFilm: Excellent

Transfer: Excellent

Extras: Excellent

Label:  Twilight Time

Region: All

Released:  September 13, 2016

Genre:  WWII / Drama / Suspense

Synopsis: Vivid adaptation of Ken Follett’s best-selling novel about a lonely woman who develops a rsique romance with a Nazi double-agent on an isolatd Scottish isle during the heat of WWII.

Special Features: Audio Commentary with film music historian Jon Burlingame, film historian Julie Kirgo, and producer Nick Redman / Isolated Stereo Music Track / Theatrical Trailer / 8-page colour booklet with liner notes by film historian Julie Kirgo / Limited to 3000 copies / Available exclusively from Screen Archives Entertainment and www.twilighttimemovies.com.

 


 

Review:

Had this adaptation of Ken Follett’s best-selling novel been made today, the first act would’ve been compressed into 10 minutes, and our Nazi spy – the Needle – would’ve been fast en route to the isolated rocky island upon which the drama deepens and ultimately concludes, but being a meticulous and very patiently arranged adaptation by veteran writer Stanley Mann (Rapture, The Collector, Damien: Omen II), the first half just layers in the minutia of Heinrich Faber (Donald Sutherland) as he weaves through a classic English community, befriends members of the local military establishment, and quietly reports back to Berlin of what the Brits and their American ally are up to.

Everything goes awry when a smitten landlady uses her passkey to ‘surprise’ her gentleman tenant, and we’re treated to a stark example of how Faber got his specific nickname. Faber applies his vicious switchblade in one swoop, and eventually flees, launching a manhunt that moves from hunting a murder suspect to wanted Nazi spy, as it becomes clear to investigating superior Godliman (Ian Bannen) that Faber has photographic evidence which could ruin their plans to fool Hitler and ensure a surprise assault on Normandy.

What the first act establishes is Faber’s ruthlessness, resourcefulness, and determination to do his duty to the Fatherland, and provides contrasting material for when he meets Lucy (Kate Nelligan), a lonely mother on Storm Island, trapped in a loveless marriage, yet devoted to the son conceived before her husband’s grievous drunk driving injury.

Lucy’s backstory is dramatized briefly near the film’s beginning: the photogenic couple are married, and David (Christopher Cazenove), England’s future war hero and ace fighter pilot, veers off the road after foolishly overindulging in post-nuptials champagne. When the couple are rejoined, it’s after the bulk of Faber’s chase has led him to Storm Island, and we see a family being torn apart by David’s alcohol, severe self-loathing, and utter refusal to even allow Lucy’s gaze or touch.

Not long after his arrival, Faber immediately sees both cruelty and an opportunity to engage in a moment of sympathy and understanding with Lucy, but it quickly devolves into opportunism – exploiting Lucy’s vulnerable needs and being able to carry on with a lie that ultimately pits the two against each other.

If Lucy and Faber are the film’s main characters, their co-stars are the locations, which on the British mainland have been aged to resemble shopworn 1940s, and on Storm Island are the severe slopes of the rocky mass upon which rests Lucy and David’s sheep farm, and a lighthouse manned by the island’s other inhabitant.

That four humans are charged with keeping the isle’s defenses up & running is a marvelous conceit, because it opens the door for intimate (and petty) dramas between an angry husband, a sexually hungry yet gentle mother, and a sociopathic killer who allows a cozy fantasy to lower his guard, and force further cruelties.

Needle is also a film packed with contrasts and cruel ironies, making audiences never fully side with any single person wholeheartedly. When Lucy receives kindness and physical comfort from Faber, we’re rooting for her happiness in spite of the immorality of their union; and later in the film when he pours himself a fresh pot of coffee after a murderous escapade, he’s a sadist for being so cheery, and revolting for furthering a fantasy romance that becomes an emotional and physical assault on Lucy after sunset.

The finale is modern cinema in dragging out the cat-and-mouse game between Faber and Lucy, with bursts of violence, moments of control, and ultimately a confrontation that has to end one way. What audiences mourn isn’t the demise of a cold villain, but that a rare burst of tenderness failed to save the lovers, and set them on to better lives. It’s a naive hope, but in spite of their impossible circumstances and emotional DNA, there’s great tragedy in the way Follett’s lovers engage in a moment of emotional good, and seed a variety of awful events that literally leave on adult standing on Storm Island.

Needle always looked grainy, so while Twilight Time’s Blu-ray contains a crisp HD transfer, there’s a grittiness to Alan Hume’s cinematography that nevertheless evokes a docu-drama tenor, and accentuates the age of the period decor. (It’s also a handsome production that starkly reminds one of the skilled talent pool that resided in the U.K. and was underused due to the film production crash of the 1970s.)

Among the U.K.’s exports in 1981 was director Richard Marquand, who would direct two blockbusters in Hollywood – Star Wars: Return of the Jedi (1983), and Jagged Edge (1985). TT’s ace commentators periodically pay homage to Marquand’s taste for pacing, performance nuances, and the ability to tackle action, violence, and moral issues in an almost classical style, but with contemporary energy. (The director’s death in 1987 from a heart attack at 49 cut short what would’ve been an solid career in film.)

Regular historians Julie Kirgo and Jon Burlingame volley comments and discussions with producer Nick Redman for a highly appreciative track on what’s ostensibly a carefully crafted film that surprised audiences and critics expecting something cliched, stale, and melodramatic. Nelligan and Sutherland (two fine Canadians talents) provide depth by being subtle, reacting discretely, and treating what could’ve been a sleazy tryst as an act by two deeply wounded figures.

Cazenove achieved broader popularity playing Ben Carrington in TV’s Dynasty (1986-1987), but this is a better character because David’s inner pain and outer cruelty is more affecting. He’s also a fighter and no fool, and his confronting Faber for infidelity is a great sequence that succeeds because the audience quickly realizes that David can still inflict strategic hits because he retains his military training. The battle between the steely killer and the ‘legless drunk’ is vicious, unexpectedly lengthy, and terrifying in the way both men snap into self-defense mode and literally fight to the death.

Bathing the film’s drama and complex emotional duels is Miklos Rozsa’s score, which represents a unique period for a golden age composer enjoying a renaissance as younger directors re-engaged an old timer for his vintage sound and acumen to enhance their dramas.

As Burlingame relates, significant portions of Rozsa’s music may have been dialed down in the final mix (call it an example of Marquand’s modernism to evoke rather than smother audiences with period authenticity), but it still packs a punch, especially when the lush romantic theme makes its way to the lovers’ recurring unions, and hits hard in the end when the two must face each other in one final moment.

(Marquand does allow for some classic and prolonged melodrama in the finale, but it’s so well choreographed between the actors, the actions, and editing that Roza’s music is the icing that sells the finale and the film as one dreadful tragedy. The attack on Normandy may have been safeguarded by Lucy’s actions, but Follett’s characters are left in fairly miserable circumstances.)

Roza’s music is preserved in an isolated stereo track, and career-wise the score is neatly sandwiched between two of Rozsa’s other rhapsodic gems, Time After Time (1979) and Last Embrace (1979), and his final score, Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982), after which a stroke reordered his activities from film scoring to full-time classical composition.

Although Nelligan and Sutherland had co-starred in the CBC TV version of Bethune (1977), Sutherland would continue a prolific career in movies, whereas Nelligan’s main works include Dracula (1979), Without a Trace (1983), Eleni (1985), Frankie and Johnny (1991), and The Prince of Tides (1991).

Ken Follett’s works proved even more successful on TV, and include The Key to Rebecca (1985), On Wings of Eagles (1986), The Pillars of the Earth (2010), and World Without End (2012).

 

 

© 2016 Mark R. Hasan

 


 

External References:
Editor’s BlogIMDB  —  Soundtrack Album — Composer Filmography
 
Vendor Search Links:
Amazon.ca —  Amazon.com —  Amazon.co.uk

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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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