Death and the Maiden: Polanski Directs Ariel Forman Play, Starring Ben Kingsley and Sigourney Weaver

I can’t imagine a better movie made out of Ariel Dorfman’s smash hit play, Death and the Maiden, than Roman Polanski’s, a director perfectly suited to this kind of material.

At the same time, Polanski doesn’t conceal–or resolve–the problems that had marred the stage production. It’s not only a claustrophobic work, mostly limited to one setting, but the play is overly schematic, with its trio of characters emerging as mouthpieces for different ideologies rather than fully worked out individuals.

The story begins as attorney Geraldo Escobar (Stuart Wilson) is appointed to head a commission investigating the vicious police squads and government crimes that tyrannized his country during a now-deposed dictatorship. While the specific locale is not named, it’s clearly Chile (Dorfman’s native country) in the 1970s.

Polanksi understands that for such a political, message play to be effective it needs to be framed as an exciting thriller and that’s the strategy that he takes. Visually, Death and the Maiden is a tour-de force, accentuated by the fact that it’s set at night, during heavy rainstorms, in an isolated house, miles away from the nearest town.

When Escobar gets a flat fire on his way home, Dr. Miranda (Ben Kingsley), a gentle man and presumably admirer of Escobar’s work, gives him a ride. Later that night, when the doctor returns with Escobar’s tire, the lawyer’s high-strung wife, Paulina (Sigourney Weaver), recognizes him as the man who tortured and repeatedly raped her after she was arrested.

Paulina was blindfolded during her humiliation, but she claims she can positively identify Miranda by his voice, his speech, his body smell, most of all his passion for Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” quartet, which he played while torturing her.

Is Paulina telling the truth Is the eternally fallible human memory to be trusted Do we have the right to torment our torturers Is “an eye for an eye” a justified philosophy These are some of the ethical dilemmas that Paulina’s benevolent husband–who stands in for the audience as jury–needs to face.

Taking control of the situation, Paulina proceeds with a mock trial, despite persistent protests from Miranda and some moral questioning from her husband. In a highly symbolic–and latently sexual–scene, she pulls off her underpants and shoves them into Miranda’s mouth, then tapes it. She tears the tape with her teeth, while resting her hand on his lap.

Polanski, who co-wrote the script with Rafael Iglesias, brings a sure hand to the material: This is one of the best-staged and lit theatrical adaptations I have seen in some time. As there’s no power outside, the lighting is achieved through candles with most impressive visual effects.

But Dorfman’s play is pretentious; it hardly seems worthy of Polanski’s talent. It may be unfair to blame a director for doing a play he didn’t write. But why did Polanski choose such a play to direct in the first place

I saw a good production of Death and the Maiden in London and quite a bad one in Los Angeles last year. For such a thing to really work, you need three mesmerizing performances. However, in Polanski’s version, the acting is uniformly good, but undistinguished.

A tough actress, Sigourney Weaver is as expected stern and proficient. But she is not totally convincing: perhaps it’s her flat American accent and modern speech pattern that prevent her from reaching greater depth. Stuart Wilson, mostly known until now for his stage work, gives an extraordinary performance as the husband caught between unconditional love for his wife and serving justice in a more dispassionate manner.

Ben Kingsley has a thankless role for most of film, though at the end, he has a powerful scene, which he carries off beautifully. What works against Kingsley’s role is the playwright’s obvious bias in favor of Paulina.

With all my reservations, I must give Polanski marks for two achievements. First, his refusal to open up the play and use flashbacks to show Paulina’s misery. And, more importantly, making the ending much more ambiguous and disturbing than the play’s.