|Written by Abbie Bernstein|
|Wednesday, 11 March 1998|
The Austrian writer Franz Kafka is so well known for his particular brand of dread of mysterious persecution that the word 'Kafkaesque' has become part of the common vernacular. Director David Jones and playwright/screenwriter Harold Pinter have turned Kafka's creepy novel 'The Trial' into a movie that is as bizarre and arbitrary as the events it depicts. Although the film was made in 1992, 'The Trial' looks and sounds uncannily like a product of the '60s. Indeed, Patrick McGoohan's 'Prisoner' would not be out of place in these surroundings, though doubtless he'd do a better job against his adversaries than does Kyle MacLachlan's smug Josef K.
Josef, a bank clerk in a European city that remains unidentified (not too surprising, since we never even learn the protagonist's surname), wakes up one morning to find his apartment, his breakfast and even his underwear commandeered by a pair of strange men. Josef gleans from the duo that there are some sort of legal proceedings against him--the two are meant to be his jailers, though they don't prevent him from coming and going.
As Josef tries straighten out his legal situation, still completely ignorant of what he's being charged with, his straits go from bad to worse. Ominous warnings come from the mouths of total strangers; an artist cheerily advises Josef to keep the case going indefinitely in order to avoid conviction; silent rooms in dingy apartment buildings have doors that connect to crowded, noisy courtrooms; lust-filled women all have powerful and jealous protectors.
Kafka intended 'The Trial' to be surreal, but it's unlikely he envisioned a film version of his work (he died in 1924). The filmmakers here succeed in creating a work of surpassing oddness, but not in ways that necessarily serve the material. It's one thing to plunge a regular guy--or even someone who imagines himself to be a regular guy--into absurd yet potentially deadly circumstances. However, Josef K is himself such an artificial creature that his predicament is observed from a calculated distance. It seems that we're meant to despise him for his middle-class priggishness, identify with his victimization and remember that he's a symbolic construct all at once. Theatre, film and literature of the '60s juggled this sort of baggage much more frequently than contemporary pieces do. This rendition of 'The Trial' plays as though thirty years of culture never happened--it has the contradictory qualities of being simultaneously experimental and old-fashioned.
Jones and Co. bravely plunge ahead as though they're playing to an audience in sync with their retro sensibilities. MacLachlan gamely plays into Josef's condescending, aloof persona. The male supporting players seem to be having a lot more fun, especially Alfred Molina as a randy painter. Fans of Anthony Hopkins have a long wait ahead--he doesn't turn up until Chapter 17--but they are rewarded with a massive monologue that turns out to be the deadpan equivalent of an existential knock-knock joke. (It's not especially funny at the time, but with hindsight, the routine is amusing in a very dark way.)
The filmmakers have achieved a look for 'The Trial' that faithfully reproduces that of '60s movies, from the production design to the costumes to the slightly faded tint of color prints that have been sitting in vaults for thirty years. The bluish day-for-night cinematography adds further to the retro effect.
Carl Davis' grim, melodramatic orchestral score adds an aural dimension to the nostalgia factor. The sound mix is always clear, if sometimes incongruous--during the rainstorm in Chapter 11, both dialogue and water striking the pavement are perfectly audible without seeming to interact, even though the characters are supposed to be talking in the rain. A silence in Chapter 12 is a bit too complete, with no ambient noise. This may be a deliberate stylistic choice on the part of the filmmakers rather than a technical oversight, but it serves to remind us that we're watching a film rather than to help us concentrate on what the film is ostensibly about. In Chapter 19, director Jones elicits a bit of genuine unease, but it seems rather late in the day to go for authentic emotion.
Funnily enough, Terry Gilliam's film 'Brazil,' while featuring an original plot and characters, seems closer in spirit to Kafka's intent than this version of 'The Trial' does. However, the film is so unlike most movies made in the '90s that it's worth watching for sheer novelty value.