4 December 2007 | zogz54
Intelligent Conrad Adaptation
'The Shadow Line' is about an able, intelligent young seaman who resigns his position, only to receive unexpectedly the command of another ship after the death of its captain. This early, land-set section is perhaps a little plodding. The interaction of the narrator with various other characters, and the details of how he comes to assume his captaincy, serve in Conrad's novel to deepen our understanding of him, to see both his strengths and weaknesses, and observe how he was both ill- and well-prepared for leadership. Wajda tends to err on the side of mere scene-setting, failing to invest scenes that could easily have been reduced without affecting the essential narrative with the thematic and psychological significance achieved by Conrad. An additional, mild annoyance is the over-the-top mugging by John Bennett as the supine keeper of a boarding-house; fortunately, it's a small part, and compensation is provided by Martin Wyldeck (an actor quite unknown to me), who is very enjoyable as a wily old mariner with a rather donnish demeanour.
Once the story takes to the seas, all reservations fade, for what follows is superb cinema. It manages to capture the sense of being at sea as well as any movie I know, including the excellent 'Master and Commander'. What makes the difference here, however, is that whereas most ocean-set films either depict the ship's struggle against the awesome, hostile elements of storms and towering waves, or delight in the bracing freshness and freedom of having a fair wind at the sails, 'The Shadow Line' tells the story of a becalmed ship, barely drifting through the water, its crew sweltering in the oppressive heat and laid low by illness, their fate possibly in the hands of the malevolent spirit of their late captain. It's an unusual proposition for a cinematic entertainment: stillness, silence and accumulating claustrophobia. In lesser hands, the result could easily have been dull. But the fine performances (including that of a young Tom Wilkinson - although he looks middle-aged even here) and the sharp cinematography (sometimes vivid to the point of unreality) enable the power of Conrad's tale to be conveyed surprisingly successfully.
The performance of Marek Kondrat in the main role is extremely impressive: authoritative, yet retaining the sense of doubt and inexperience so crucial to Conrad's (self-)portrayal. Taking the form of a retrospective 'confession' the book deals with the emotional development of the protagonist, his traversing of the 'shadow line' between youth and maturity a change that entails both loss and gain. Conrad's narrator is significantly anonymous; this gesture towards universality is strengthened by the frequent use of impersonal 'one', as in 'one thinks', 'one does', etc. At the same time, the author allows us to the read the tale as a coded autobiography, with the figure of the young, sea-struck Pole a version of his own younger self and the older, wiser narrator looking back on his rite of passage as a version of the 60-year-old novelist. The story's significance is thus simultaneously general and particular, both universal and individual. The film adaptation pushes the autobiographical element further by naming the hero 'Joseph Conrad' (and I wonder if the lead actor's name is entirely coincidental); the youthful captain's conduct in command is a presage of the literary genius to come. Conrad's entire oeuvre (including the other books, such as 'Heart of Darkness', that Wajda considered filming) is thus in part a product of these early experiences; the passage into leadership and maturity (though not necessarily wisdom), the passing of the shadow line, is the crucial development that enables great literature - and great cinema - to be created. If only more literary adaptations displayed such intelligent engagement with their source texts instead of being content merely to illustrate them according to the genteel standards of decorum and respectability.