Wednesday 10 January 2007

The Ninth Gate (1999)

You really can't go wrong when starting off a film with a suicide by hanging, especially when the dead man is surrounded by a gorgeous library filled with antique books. It's a Roman Polanski movie, based on the novel El Club Dumas by Arturo Perez-Reverte, the best selling Spanish journalist turned writer. He's quoted as saying that Polanski's film isn't bad but it isn't his novel. It stars Johnny Depp, meaning that it's one a Depp that I haven't managed to see yet, and there aren't too many of those left.

Depp is Dean Corso, an unscrupulous book dealer with a reputation, who is not unwilling to buy a rare Don Quixote for a steal from a couple who don't have a clue, when the man who does is right there in the room but unable to comment after having a stroke. Boris Balkan, a wealthy collector of books on the devil, invites him to work for him. There are three copies of an antique volume called The Nine Gates of the Kingdom of Shadows still in existence, a book containing riddles that when decoded lead to a ritual to raise the devil. Balkan believes that only one is genuine he doesn't know if it's his own copy or one of the other two. So he hires Corso to find a way to compare the three and find out which one is the real one.

The investigation leads him down strange paths. He starts seeing things that aren't there, his home is ransacked and beautiful women start throwing themselves at him. Naturally it all revolves around the book, and when those beautiful women can't find it they start trying to kill him instead, and manage that with the dealer he trusts to stash the book for him. Even piles of scaffolding seem to be trying to kill him, when nobody else is around. And throughout he keeps bumping into a nameless young lady who can vanish without explanation.

This is not an action film and it's far from an effects film either, though there are some very subtle effects shots that are as notable for their brevity as their effectiveness. José López Rodero does a magnificent job in a couple of double roles, for instance, even though he's not even an actor, but a production manager. I also love the colour of the film, which is usually beautifully faded to brown, and makes me want to see Chinatown again in widescreen this time round. The performances are subtle but very powerful indeed. Depp is far more restrained than usual and deliberately lets himself be outshone by a number of female characters with smaller parts in the film: a dynamic and sexual Lena Olin; an enigmatic Emmanuelle Seigner, Polanski's real wife who has featured in a few of his movies; and Barbara Jefford as an elderly baroness with a colourful past. Frank Langella is also a remarkably and refreshingly unvillainous villain. Above all, I have a feeling that this is a film that grows with each viewing. I'm looking forward to next time through.

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