DEATH AND THE MAIDEN (1994)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 43 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Language including Descriptions of Violent Situations

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Directed by: Roman Polanski

Written by: Ariel Dorfman & Rafael Yglesias

(based on the play DEATH AND THE MAIDEN by Ariel Dorfman)

Starring: Sigourney Weaver, Ben Kingsley & Stuart Wilson

Director Roman Polanski seems to have an interest in bringing small plays to the big screen. In recent years, he has done so twice with CARNAGE (a dark comedy driven purely by one endless conversation between four characters) and VENUS IN FUR (a complex drama with only two characters). Polanski also adapted another play onto film during the mid-90’s. This was DEATH AND THE MAIDEN. A nail-biting scenario between three hard-to-read characters is what drives this tense thriller forward and keeps the viewer’s eyeballs glued to the screen for the entire running time. While the dialogue and delivery can get a tad over-the-top in moments, DEATH AND THE MAIDEN is an interesting small-scale tale with solid suspense throughout.

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Paulina and Gerardo are a married couple living in an unnamed South American country. The politics of this unknown place have recently changed from a dictatorship to a democracy. Gerardo has been tasked with helping this new country emerge, while Paulina is suffering from severe PTSD after enduring extreme torture as a political prisoner. The couple seems to be at be odds with one another, but are healing as much as they can…and then Dr. Miranda walks into their home. This seemingly kindly gentleman gave Gerardo a lift in the middle of a rain storm, but his voice is more than familiar to Paulina. After getting the upper hand on this Good Samaritan, Paulina reveals that she believes Miranda is the fascist agent who tortured her for weeks on end. A mock trial begins as we question whether this captive doctor is a former torturer or whether the shell-shocked Paulina has made a terrible mistake…

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DEATH AND THE MAIDEN is a film that’s driven entirely by dialogue and performances. The plot itself is interesting as Polanski masterfully builds an elevating sense of tension and makes us question where the film might go next. As our loyalties frequently shift between these characters, the dialogue reveals little tidbits about the unnamed country’s history, but never goes into distracting outbursts of full-blown exposition. While the long conversations are interesting and keep the film chugging along at a strong pace, there are some lines that seem stilted. During a couple of scenes, I found myself thinking: “Nobody would talk this way, especially not in this scenario.”

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The movie takes place primarily within the confines of the couple’s isolated home, but Polanski impressively uses lighting (the power is conveniently shut off for extra tension) to evoke a dark mood. The use of shadows also make one of the more tame moments of the film into something seemingly rather menacing. The actors and actress who walk around this small environment come off as convincing for the most part. Much like the dialogue (mainly as a result of the more heavy-handed lines), all three of these talented performers occasionally come off as slightly hammy. The external and internal struggle between Sigourney Weaver (the wife) and Ben Kingsley (the accused doctor) is mainly the draw here, while Stuart Wilson (the husband) seems like a bland character in comparison.

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The best thing about DEATH AND THE MAIDEN is that it feels true to its small-scale source material, but adds extra cinematic flair that a stage simply wouldn’t have room for (one camera movement near the end is far more dramatic than anything that could have been executed by a performer). The steadily rising suspense running through the movie kept me hooked for the entire running time (which moved by very quickly). However, some of the dialogue and the resulting line delivery can be a bit too heavy-handed and over-the-top. With a similar vibe to Sartre’s NO EXIT (and a tonally related message to boot), DEATH AND THE MAIDEN is worth a look if you happen to stumble across it.

Grade: B

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