The Man from London (2007)
Director: Bela Tarr
Cast: Miroslav Krobot, Erika Bok, Janos Derzsi, Tilda Swinton
My Rating: 10/10
In Short: Gripping and haunting; one of Tarr’s best
From its opening moments, Bela Tarr’s 2007 film The Man from London grips the audience with its sheer size, scope and epic imagery. The opening shot runs for about twelve minutes, and the first three of these are spent rising slowly up to view a magnificent, gigantic ship, stationary and dark. The music that accompanies it, Mihaly Vig’s stunning score, is suitably slow and moody, and unlike of his previous Tarr compositions. Indeed, this film was somewhat of a change for Tarr after the haunting stillness of Satantango and Werckmeister Harmonies, and although many have stated this as the reasoning behind their description of it as “sub-par Tarr,” I see it as only enhancing the appropriately more open Tarr atmosphere.
Though this has more of a plot than Tarr’s previous efforts (and the ostensibly barren The Turin Horse), it still remains a quintessential example of Tarr’s emphasis on images over ideas. Dialogue, which Tarr never hastens to use, is kept in its own scenes and generally separated from the more overwhelming sequences of silence, such as the almost 30-minute opening scene. The only notable sense in which it can be said that Tarr has deviated from his normal routine is the film’s setting, France. Far from his familiar home of Hungary, Tarr still uses some of his favourite Hungarian actors, but also employs French and even English actors (can you say Tilda Swinton?), dubbing their dialogue into the appropriate language in the editing room.
The “story” focuses on Maloin, who works at a harbour and watches over it from the comfort and majestic view of a control room. He notices a man exiting a ship taking an unusual route around the harbour. He then observes the transaction between him and another man of a large suitcase. However, later on the man with the suitcase gets into an argument and is thrown into the water, clutching is suitcase, where he is killed. Maloin quickly arrives at the scene and takes the suitcase away, surprised and elated to discover it contains money. A man from London and his associates scramble to retrieve the suitcase, and I won’t reveal what happens to it in the finish. This is really the extent of the plot, and much of what I’ve described happens in the opening scene. The rest of the film is spent examining Maloin’s home life, and how it is affected (which is surprisingly minimally) by the presence of the money, which he keeps to himself. He removes his daughter from her cleaning job and brutally rebuffs his stressed wife (Tilda Swinton, yes Tilda Swinton, who despite what the trailer suggests, is only in a couple of scenes).
The way that Tarr develops the obligatory “plot” in his films is always interesting. The plot is slow, and often left inexplicable. For example, the film’s final confrontation is left completely off-screen, leaving us to wonder exactly what happened and how, and the contents of a small shack on the seashore, which becomes relevant in the film’s heartbreaking final scene. Though this is one of Tarr’s shorter films, he manages to stretch out all his images and make even the tiniest things, such as an annoying recurring sound which gives certain pivotal scenes a surprising tension, important and prevalent. There are many wondrous long takes, as of course we can expect, and despite the often uneventful content of them, they are strangely gripping, desirable to watch, and have a firm grasp on us with their typically Tarr-esque unease. One in particular that struck me as rather notable is a rehash of a shot from Tarr’s previous film Werckmeister Harmonies, except instead of two people this shot contains only one. It is Maloin, as he walks around the pier in silence, seeming to go in circles without any real destination. It is one of Tarr’s signature following shots, and the mood it creates within the audience (those of whom are patient enough to sink into it) is eerie but breathtaking.
The Man from London, I believe, is up there with the best of Tarr’s films, as gripping and haunting as all of them. Tarr’s direction, the cast’s acting, the rich cinematography and Mihaly Vig’s score (which is one of the best scores I’ve heard) are all factors and elements in its greatness. It shall always be a pivotal example of Tarr’s genius, a genius which is so incredibly rare that when we are lucky enough to spot it, the moment of realization when we feel it inhibiting us, enhancing our senses and our love of cinema, is one of the truly unforgettable moments of our lifetime.