Set in a 1950s Vietnam that is at once a nostalgic dream and a violent hell, the film is also in turn an eerie metaphor for America's later involvement in Vietnam, as well as a simple but devastating love triangle. Or you can simply sit there in the dark, caught up in cinematographer Christopher Doyle's moody, elegant lighting. No matter from which of these levels you choose to watch it, "The Quiet American" casts an undeniable spell.
Noyce, whose equally lovely "Rabbit-Proof Fence" made it to Richmond last month, appears to have bolted from the clutches of big-budget Hollywood blockbuster-wannabes ("Clear and Present Danger," "The Saint," "The Bone Collector"), showing us he hasn't forsaken either his independent roots or his talent. Recalling the stylish verve of his first picture, but on a much quieter, more intimate scale, "The Quiet American" should leave no doubt that Noyce is an artist on top of his game.
Based on Graham Greene's 1955 novel of the same name, Noyce's film stays faithful to the source material, to a point. The latter, enjoying the luxury of hindsight, finds myriad ways to seduce us into the paradoxical nature of the love story and the blended history of Indochina.
Quite at home in the lush humidity of Vietnam is Thomas Fowler (Caine), a British foreign correspondent with both a wife back home and a beautiful young mistress, Phuong (Do Hai Yen), in Saigon. He also has something of a devil-may-care work ethic: His daily routine consists of leisurely sipping a cup of tea each midmorning outside the Continental Hotel, catching a glimpse of the lithe form of Phuong as she heads off to gossip with her girlfriends, then equally leisurely heading to his office around 11 a.m.
The novel and the movie are both told in flashbacks; we watch Fowler as he learns of the death of a man he describes as "the quiet American" (his friend and romantic rival Alden Pyle (Brendan Fraser). Then we sit enthralled listening as he retells the story of their acquaintance.
Pyle, a young idealist from Boston who wears his Red Sox cap in a North Vietnamese war zone, has an aw-shucks, prototypical American demeanor. In the country to help launch an economic-aid program, he's one of those Americans who are "causing a lot of trouble," as the French police inspector (Rade Sherbedzija) darkly notes. (Vietnam was then a French colony, though the country was fighting for independence in the north.) Fowler at first befriends the eager young man, then is dismayed when Pyle falls in love with Phuong. In one of many telling scenes, Pyle compares Phuong to Vietnam itself "a beauty, yet the helpless mistress of an older European."
Although it's a political story and an uncannily timely one at that the politics fade into the background in the wake of Caine's splendidly complex performance. He's a quiet Englishman, a contented man who eyes the lovely Phuong with a mixture of pride, condescension and silent adoration. "I just got her started on Bach," Fowler tells Pyle, as he flashes a quick, slightly embarrassed smile. Make no mistake, Fowler is no hero, yet Caine allows his basic decency to shine through his nearly impassive face. To lose Phuong, he says with aching sincerity, would be "the beginning of death."
The often-underrated Fraser contributes a deceptively simple, skillful characterization; he's perfectly cast, with his big American face looming above broad shoulders. And Do Hai Yen does what she can with a role as slim as she is; it's no easy trick playing a metaphor, but she manages to do it with a lovely grace. As sentimental '50s cafe music plays in the nightclubs of Saigon, Caine's eyes meet hers from across the room, and the moment is electric and yet sweetly innocent. In a quiet way. So is this movie. ****
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