This is the first and as far as I can tell, the only completed production of "Heart of Darkness" ever released. Prior to starting on "Citizen Kane," Orson Welles shot some test footage for a version of "Heart of Darkness" that was to be filmed entirely in what would now be called "POV", where we would see everything from the point of view of the main character Charlie Marlow; he would be seen only fleetingly in mirrors, windows, water, etc. The film was never made. The "POV" technique was used, not too successfully, in 1947 in "The Lady in the Lake," with Robert Montgomery starring as Philip Marlowe. Presumably, the coincidence of the two "Marlow(e)" characters is just that. Of course, Francis Coppola's "Apocalypse Now" was based on "Heart of Darkness."
The short novel "Heart of Darkness" by the Polish-born British writer Joseph Conrad, first serialized in a British literary magazine in 1899, features one of his favorite alter egos, ship captain Charlie Marlow, who also narrates the short story "Youth" and indirectly tells the story of "Lord Jim." Marlow, temporarily out of work, decides to take a job captaining a river boat for a Belgian company involved in the brutal exploitation of the resources of King Leopold II's personal fiefdom, the cruelly misnamed Congo Free State. Marlow travels from London to Brussels, signs on with the company, and is told that his mission is to take a boat up the Congo River to a far inland station headed by one of the company's most productive agents in the colony, a German named Kurtz. Shipments of ivory, latex (for the production of rubber) and other products from Kurtz's station have ceased, and no word has come downriver from Kurtz for some time. There are rumors that he has "gone native." Marlow is to investigate, take any necessary action, and make a report on his return. He takes passage down the West African coast to the mouth of the Congo, is delayed for weeks while he is forced to repair his boat at the company station on the coast, and finally sets out upriver to find Kurtz's station. The river, the heat, the vegetation, the wildlife, the insects, the people, all take their toll on his endurance, his imagination, and his mental resources. He finds Kurtz ill, half-mad, and close to death. The final encounter and the death of Kurtz are almost an anticlimax, especially since Conrad is so obscure about what actually happens that we are left to puzzle it out for ourselves. This is a novel where you close the book vaguely dissatisfied with the ending but nevertheless treasuring the story for its amazing atmospherics.
This "Heart of Darkness" was filmed with Guyana in Central America standing in for West Africa. It is best where the novel is at its greatest disadvantage: Actually showing us First World urbanites what a boat trip up a tropical river would look like. But the rest of the film was forgettable. Tim Roth does his best as Marlow, but so much about the plot, characterizations, and character relationships has been altered beyond recognition that you wonder why they bothered. If the aim was to make Conrad's story for the screen, why didn't they leave it alone? It's unreasonable to expect that no compromises will be made when a book is made into a movie, but so many changes were made that to me had no cinematic justification that you wonder whether we are simply dealing with incompetent screenwriters and cinematographers. Most disappointing of all was John Malkovich as Kurtz. He was completely miscast and simply flubs the role. Everything about him is wrong: His looks, his acting style, his voice, his accent, everything. A vastly better choice would have been someone like Bruno Ganz (unlike Malkovich, an actual German, like the character).
This is a very disappointing production and I would recommend it only after you've read the book if you want to depend on more than your imagination to get a visual picture of a boat trip up the Congo River circa 1900.
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