THE ASSIGNMENT, 1997
Director: Christian Duguay
Writers: Dan Gordon and Sabi H. Shabtai
Actors: Aidan Quinn, Donald Sutherland, Ben Kingsley
The Assignment sounded very promising. Donald Sutherland, a fine Canadian actor, playing a CIA agent: good. Ben Kingsley: good. Aidan Quinn: OK, fine. A plot involving getting rid of Carlos the Jackal, an actual terrorist who in real life is now serving a life sentence in a Paris prison. Couldn’t be bad.
Sadly, it was. This film had a lot of potential, but it uses a plot device that asks us to suspend way too much disbelief.
It all hinges on a plan dreamed up by CIA agent Jack Shaw (Donald Sutherland). He trains US naval officer, Annibal Ramirez (Quinn), who is the double of Carlos, to impersonate Carlos. The plan is to discredit Carlos, so that the KGB, one of his patrons, will assassinate him. The training involves hardships and mind games, so that Ramirez starts to lose his nice-ordinary-guy persona and take on some of the dark-side aspects of Carlos. So far, so good: some possibilities here. But the training verges on silliness, the dialogue is portentous, and everything is treated as deadly serious. The whole thing needs more variation — more light and shade.
It all gets way out of control when Ramirez is trained to impersonate Carlos sexually by a former lover of his. Oh, come on! is the discerning viewer’s likely response at that point.
The action moves to Libya and gets into full rooftop leaping, car chasing, innocent passerby scattering, mode. No cliché of the genre is left unexplored: cars are driven down stone steps, bodies crash through windows into people’s homes or teeter on the edge and then tumble off high buildings, cars crash and explode.
Claudia Ferri, as Ramirez’ wife, is convincing as their family life disintegrates owing to his personality change. The rest of the lesser characters are one-dimensional. Aidan Quinn, playing both Ramirez and Carlos, was fine, although his accent varied at times when it wasn’t intended to. Donald Sutherland does his usual, chilling rendition of a morally bankrupt character: over the top, of course, but it’s that kind of a movie. Ben Kingsley has a nice role in the early scenes as a Mossad agent who thinks Ramirez is Carlos. But any nuances in his performance become lost as things turn farcical. This is the fate of the film as a whole.
PAINTED LADY, 1998
Director: Julian Jarrold
Writer: Allan Cubitt
Actors: Helen Mirren, Iain Glen, Franco Nero, Iain Cuthbertson
This was a two-part made-for-TV movie, but it’s not in any way inferior to a film made for the theatre. It’s a murder mystery, with lots of fine art references to appeal to art history lovers. “Judith Beheading Holofernes” by Artemisia Gentileschi almost has a role of its own.
Helen Mirren has a great part as Maggie Sheridan, an aging musician who does her own makeover to pose as an art buyer. She plays both the if-Janis-Joplin-had-lived character and the if-I-had-been-born-a-Polish-Countess character perfectly. Not surprisingly, the part was written specifically for her.
When the film opens, Maggie is living in a guest cottage on the Irish estate of Sir Charles Stafford, where she has been enjoying an extended recovery from decades of fast living. She is drawn into the world of art dealing, both legitimate and not, as a result of the murder of Sir Charles.
Lesley Manville and Michael Maloney, as her respectable and successful art historian sister and art dealer brother-in-law, provide a great contrast to Mirren’s character. Iain Glen as her childhood friend Sebastian Stafford and Franco Nero as dealer Robert Tassi are appealing characters. But it’s definitely Mirren’s movie and very entertaining.
Art lovers will enjoy the not-so-subtle references. Mirren surprised in her bath by her brother-in-law is a great scene and we can all imagine what is going to happen to Sebastian.