Directed by John Malkovich, starring Javier Bardem, Laura Morante, Oliver Cotton, Abel Folk and Luis Miguel Cintra.
Best known as a film actor, John Malkovich is also a founder member of Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre and has directed more than a dozen plays for the company. His film-directing debut is an unexpectedly complex and layered story, a political drama with the tension of a thriller and a thread of romance.
'The Dancer Upstairs', adapted by Nicholas Shakespeare from his own novel, is loosely based on the 1992 manhunt for the leader of Peru's ruthless guerrilla organisation, The Shining Path. The film is set in an unnamed Latin American country where the people are rallying behind a mysterious leader who calls himself Ezequiel. He is the head of a violent terrorist movement that is threatening the stability of the government through a series of bombings and the assassinations of government ministers.
Lawyer turned policeman ("I'm trying to find a more honourable way of practicing the law") Agustín Rejas (Bardem) is instructed to apprehend Ezequiel. Caught between the carnage of the terrorists and the corruption of the government, Rejas is in a race against time to apprehend the man before the investigation is taken out of his hands and martial law declared. As he searches for Ezequiel, the married Rejas finds himself drawn to his daughter's ballet teacher Yolanda (Morante), a woman with secrets of her own.
Javier Bardem, Oscar nominated for his role in 'Before Night Falls', turns in another excellent performance, subtly conveying Rejas' confusion and frustration with the case, his job and his life. His portrayal of the dignified investigator is contrasted with Laura Morante's (last seen in Nanni Moretti's 'The Son's Room') passionate dancer. Oliver Cotton, as Rejas' authoritative superior General Merino, is also standout.
The use of English as the main language in 'The Dancer Upstairs' is a problem for the mainly Latino cast, especially when near-unintelligible accents blur crucial meaning in such a dialogue-heavy script. Otherwise, Malkovich is a capable director, working with his cinematographer to create visually arresting images, particularly in the final scene as Rejas watches his daughter dance in a mirrored hall. Other times he has a tendency to linger too much on some shots, padding the film out to an over-long 124 minutes.
Malkovich's use of music to invoke atmosphere is superb, both incidentally and in the choice of songs. The film opens with Nina Simone's introduction to 'Who Knows Where The Time Goes' as a pickup truck speeds ominously through the night and ending with her lonesome rendition of the Sandy Denny song as Rejas stands alone.
Although it occasionally drags, 'The Dancer Upstairs' is a film that remains in mind long after the final credits roll, and bodes well for further Malkovich ventures behind the camera.