Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s first film, the claustrophobic The Lives of Others, won the Oscar® for Best Foreign Language Film. For only his second full-length feature, he’s chosen to do a big budget Hollywood film. Not just any old Hollywood caper/thriller/romance. No, he has taken on The Tourist, based on the French film, Anthony Zimmer. In adapting it for North American audiences, he has with his co-screenwriters [Christopher McQuarrie and Julian Fellowes created the kind of Hitchcockian romp where an average guy somehow wanders into situation that he is not the least bit qualified to handle – and somehow he must fake his way through or wind up dead.
The Tourist is a delightfully sharp film in classic Hitchcock tradition. Reminiscent of films like To Catch a Thief [there’s a chase across the rooftops in Venice that is at the very least an homage], it takes the classic trope of an average guy stumbling into a situation that’s way over his head, and tweaks it in intriguing and amusing ways.
Johnny Depp is Frank Tupelo, a math teacher from Wisconsin who is taking a vacation in Europe in part to get over the death of his wife three years before. There he encounters Elise Clifton-Ward, who is being followed by the police/Interpol – who seem a bit on the on the incompetent side and, in one instance, corrupt. It seems Pearce owes the British government a staggering amount of money in back taxes!
A note prompts Elise to take a specific train and find someone who generally resembles Alexander Pearce – and make the police thing that he is Alexander. She selects Frank, whom the police soon come to believe is Pearce. As for why Frank follows Elise, well, he may befuddled, but he’s not blind!
Of course the police aren’t the only ones looking for Pearce. His former employer/mentor, Reginald Shaw [Stephen Berkoff] is upset because his protégé has stolen 2.4 billion dollars from him – and he wants it back. He probes his utter lack of humanity during a session with his tailor for a new suit.
On some levels, at least in today’s frantically edited thrillers, The Tourist could be found boring by those who don’t like a story to develop properly – who don’t have to patience in luxuriate in the sights and sounds that are building a series of twists that reveal character an intelligence – and no small amount of suspense.
Cinematography John Seale has given The Tourist a rich texture, taking full advantage of being in one of the most romantic cities in the world. Details are placed in plain sight, yet in ways that aren’t always obvious, resulting in a film that has a certain richness in detail as well as texture.
Von Donnersmarck takes advantage of his budget and cast to create a fun film that literally has no other purpose than to entertain. Depp takes the Cary Grant/Jimmy Stewart role to interesting places by simply being the basic Johnny Depp [in the same way that Grant and Stewart took many roles that were, essentially themselves]. Like Stewart, Depp has his moments of clumsiness and awe that someone like Elise would even approach him on a train. Like Grant, he proves effective as a Pearce doppelganger in unexpected ways [two words: hand cuffs].
Like Audrey Hepburn, Jolie plays the aristocratic Elise as though she were born to the purple herself. She only allows Elise’s majestic bearing to veer off course when Frank is in trouble – it’s possible that she never anyone would accept a Wisconsin schoolteacher to be the wealthy thief.
Special mention should be made of Paul Bettany who plays a cop who is intent on bringing Pearce to justice, and Timothy Dalton, who is Bettany’s imperious boss and fed up with Bettany’s team’s unsuccessful efforts.
Then there’s this fellow who keeps turning up in really specific places. Rufus Sewell does a lot with this small but pivotal role – and keeps everyone guessing. On a hunch, I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that he and Johnny Depp are not worlds apart in terms of general build and coloring – but there are a few other locals who fit that general description as well, so nothing’s really simple to figure out here.
I definitely have to see it again on the big screen. It’s one of the year’s best pure entertainments.
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Photo by Peter Mountain/Courtesy of Sony/Columbia Pictures