Beholden to her benefactor, political refugee struggles with conflicting emotions in Bertolucci's dialogue-eschewing 'Besieged'
If Thandie Newton isn't careful, she's going to get typecast as a drooler.
As the title character in last year's "Beloved," she played a wild woman-child who not only slobbered, but ate like an animal and screamed like a misbehaving brat. She was good at it, too, but it seems this character trait may have been habit-forming.
Now in "Besieged" -- Bernardo Bertolucci's lavish visual ballet of awkward body language that features little dialogue and intense emotion -- Newton, in a moment of uncontrollable despondency, dribbles out of the corner of her mouth as she cries a river.
In another scene she wets herself, but in context that's a little more understandable -- as the movie opens in an unnamed African dictatorship, her homeland, Shanduari (Newton) witnesses her schoolteacher husband brutally dragged from his classroom by paramilitary grunts and presumably imprisoned as a traitor.
When next we see her, she's living in a neglected, central Roman villa as the maid to Mr. Kinsy (David Thewlis), a reclusive, socially inept English musician who spends his days tinkling away harmonically at the ivories and leering at the beautiful Shanduari like a creepy milksop.
But what's political refugee to do? Other than the unsettling way her employer keeps sending amorous offerings to her basement quarters via the dumb waiter, she has it pretty good considering what she left behind, and besides, she hasn't many other options.
Making the best of uncomfortable circumstances becomes considerably harder when Kinsy declares himself to her in an outburst of pent-up sexual obsession and begs "I'll do anything!" to make her love him. This triggers the aforementioned salivation during an emotional reaction in which Shanduari unleashes her own repressed feelings about her dire straights. "You get my husband out of jail!" she screams through hysterical, desperate tears.
From that point on, the tension in the house is thickens even though an unspoken truce of congeniality has formed. Soon Shanduari notices -- during long shots of her dusting and mopping -- that valuable (if neglected) antiques, paintings, sculptures, tapestries and furniture have begun vanishing from the house and that her employer is meeting with leaders of Rome's African community. Could he be financing her husband's defense?
It becomes apparent that he is, putting Shanduari in an even more difficult spot, endearing her to her creepy but kind benefactor while leading her to wonder what he expects in return.
Bertolucci's lyrical cinematography makes elegant use of the run-down old mansion but focuses more on physical mannerisms -- the things that go unspoken between his characters -- creating a strikingly vivid relationship between two people who barely exchange words (the first dialogue is almost 25 minutes into the movie). He establishes events, motives and emotions quickly and effectively with potent symbology like the husband's abduction and the frequent use of the villa's steep spiral staircase to place Newton and Thewlis often in the same room, but so intentionally far apart.
Newton and Thewlis ("Seven Years in Tibet") are perfect choices for such near-silent roles as the both have a distinct physical presence that speaks volumes with little more than a glance. Newton gives one of her by now trademarked raw performances of undiluted emotion (and bodily fluids), struggling to make sense of the feelings she develops for Thewlis in the wake of his sacrifices on her behalf. For his part, Thewlis brings out beautifully his character's overwhelming insecurity and his manic infatuation.
"Besieged" is vexed by the areas Bertolucci leaves unexplored -- the husband is virtually ignored beyond his usefulness as a plot device -- and by a vague conclusion that doesn't resolve the relationship and invites too many last-minute questions about the characters motivations and devotion long after we were lead to believe we understood them.
But Newton and Thewlis are, nonetheless, fascinating to watch as they mix beholden romance and extreme discomfort in a captivating study of the subconscious practice of non-verbal communication.