The Quiet American

2002, R, 101 min. Directed by Phillip Noyce. Starring Michael Caine, Brendan Fraser, Do Thi Hai Yen, Tzi Ma, Robert Stanton, Holmes Osborne, Pham Thi Mai Hoa.

REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Feb. 14, 2003

Delayed from national distribution last year in the midst of the country’s post-9/11 mood of circumspection, The Quiet American is now finally going into wider release this week, just in time for Oscar voters to take in Michael Caine’s statue-worthy performance. The timing, however, could not be more pertinent for this film adapation (by screenwriters Christopher Hampton and Robert Schenkkan) of Graham Greene’s prescient 1955 novel about the folly of colonialism in Vietnam. Set during the waning days of the French involvement in Vietnam, Greene’s novel was filmed once before in 1958 by Joseph Mankiewicz, and starred Michael Redgrave and Audie Murphy in the eponymous role. In this new version, Australian director Philip Noyce (Rabbit-Proof Fence, Clear and Present Danger) and his ensemble hit just the right notes in telling this cautionary tale about the unwritten rules of engagement in the battle for the hearts, minds, and territories of the people of far-flung continents. Caine, in one of the best performances of his career, plays lackadaisical journalist Thomas Fowler, a past-his-prime foreign reporter for The London Times who has established a comfortable and effortless life for himself in Saigon. Filing only the occasional story, Fowler spends most of his time drinking and relaxing in the company of his beautiful girlfriend Phuong (Do Thi Hai Yen), who fills his opium pipe and doesn’t pressure him too much about marriage or filing for divorce from his Catholic wife back in England. Into their lives comes American aid worker Alden Pyle (Fraser), a naive young do-gooder to whom Fowler takes a reluctant liking. The unencumbered Pyle, however, also takes a liking to Phuong. Gradually, Fowler begins to see that Pyle may not be exactly what he says he is and this, in concert with the fact that the Times is calling him back to London, prompts Fowler to go into the countryside and ferret out a story. Whether it’s his journalistic instincts finally kicking back into gear or the fear of losing Phuong, for whom he finally acknowledges his deep attachment, Fowler pursues his story and its despicable implications with newfound fervor. The Quiet American in many ways resembles the classic formula of a love story set against a war-torn background. Phuong’s love is the battleground, the woman becoming a clear metaphor for her country. Caine is extraordinary in this role that calls on him to showcase a variety of emotions and embody the jaded and weary tone of its narrator. Fraser at first seems well-cast as the naif, but as his character’s identity turns, he becomes a bit of a stretch to believe as a conniving operative. The cinematography by longtime Wong Kar-wai cameraman Christopher Doyle luxuriates in the sultry humidity of Vietnam and the cultural subversions at play between the East and the West. In so many ways, The Quiet American speaks volumes.

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The Quiet American, Phillip Noyce, Michael Caine, Brendan Fraser, Do Thi Hai Yen, Tzi Ma, Robert Stanton, Holmes Osborne, Pham Thi Mai Hoa

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