No Concessions: “Unknown” Quantities

Written by Film, No Concessions

Liam Neeson wants to know who he is in Unknown. Characters in Another Year would rather be someone else. Bob Cashill analyzes these identity crises.

Liam Neeson is the star of Unknown–an unusual choice, as Neeson may be the most known actor around. There’s little that’s ambiguous about Neeson, who was large and in charge as far back as Suspect (1987), where he made the part of a homeless deaf mute at the center of a mystery, meek and frightened as written, as commanding as Rhett Butler. We may only be able to guess at certain aspects of Oskar Schindler or Michael Collins or Alfred Kinsey but playing real-life figures on film Neeson gives them stature and authority. Seeing him on Broadway in a 2002 revival of The Crucible was like watching an oak tree that had sprouted legs and could declaim Arthur Miller. Those pipsqueak witch hunters had a hell of a time bringing him down.

Unknown, from the Dark Castle funhouse (Gothika, Ninja Assassin, etc.), means to take an axe to this image, which has only hardened since he’s become a midlife action star in Taken and played Zeus (Zeus!) in Clash of the Titans. Neeson is Dr. Martin Harris, an eminent biotechnologist, who arrives in Berlin to deliver a paper at a high-level world conference. The jetlagged Harris leaves behind a vital briefcase at the airport, necessitating a trip back from his hotel to retrieve it. The embarrassing errand is cut short when the taxi is involved in an accident that sends it into the river, and puts him into a coma. Waking at the hospital alone Harris is able to piece together enough of what happened to return to his lodgings and seek out his wife, Elizabeth (January Jones), whom he had left at the check-in desk four days earlier.

But Elizabeth doesn’t know him. Indeed, she’s in the company of her husband, Martin (Aidan Quinn). And shadowy men are attempting to kill him. Shot on location the movie makes fine use of the city (seeing it as our Martin does, for the first time) and also trades in on its looking-glass politics since the Berlin Wall fell. Nameless, stateless, and on the run, Neeson is hassled by the stuffy functionaries of the old Germany, and finds help from two members of the new one: Ernst (Bruno Ganz, the Hitler of Downfall and those subsequent parody videos), a former agent of the East German Stasi turned private eye, and Bosnian immigrant Gina (Diane Kruger), the taxi driver, who fished him out of the cab and is the only person who can corroborate his story, at great personal risk.

I liked where Unknown was going. Time was when directors made “Hitchcockian” thrillers; nowadays they make thrillers like the last thriller that made money. This one returns, or seems to return, to that earlier era, with a confused protagonist, a cool blonde, and shenanigans of some sort that aren’t clarified until the final reels. It’s no North by Northwest, but few movies are. I was, however, hoping that it could sustain itself longer and not unravel, for when it does, it’s clear that it’s the new model chase-and-pursuit picture dressed up in Hitchcock clothes and not the more upmarket and elegantly attired copy I was led to anticipate. Too bad–the movie is more fun when it’s in the vein of the Master, or Roman Polanski’s Frantic (1988), where a travel-weary Harrison Ford is immediately plunged into espionage in a foreign country, or, say, the tricky, old-school identity theft mystery Shattered (1991). Current thrillers fall too easily into silliness, not that I didn’t enjoy the big car chase that consumes half the city.

The other whoppers, however, take their toll. I mean, if you’ve seen any movies over the last 30 years or so, you should know that if a certain veteran character actor is the only person you can call to help you out of a jam, you do not call this certain veteran character actor to help you out of a jam. I love the guy but he is trouble. I would have thought that Dark Castle house director Jaume Collet-Serra, who bumped off Paris Hilton when she needed killing in 2005’s House of Wax remake and had many a twist up his sleeve for 2009’s wackily enjoyable Orphan, would have known to have cast his role counterintuitively. Then again that would have deprived us of Unknown‘s best scene, where this certain veteran character actor and Ganz, two old pros, meet.

And Collet-Serra’s professionalism and producer Joel Silver’s glossy production do help paper over most of the cracks, with one exception. Jones, so effectively used on Mad Men, is poor in the film, petulant and distracted where she should be cool. She’s no Eva Marie Saint, but few actresses are; that she’s well below Tippi Hedren is less easy to forgive, and puzzling, as the part seems to suit her.

And Neeson? Well, for all the bumps and bruises he sustains, there’s not a scratch on him. A denouement that could very well have been noir and changed our perception of him instead turns vanilla. Unknown just rattles his cage for a couple of diverting, forgettable hours.

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“On a scale of 1 to 10, how happy are you?” asks Gerri (Ruth Sheen), a counselor, of her new patient, Janet (Imelda Staunton). “1,” says Janet, barely blinking. Five minutes into Another Year and we’re already immersed in a thick London fog, the kind that only filmmaker Mike Leigh (Secrets & Lies, Vera Drake) can generate. But when Leigh is in top form, as he is here, it’s a very enveloping state, too.

This is the fifth Leigh screenplay to receive an Oscar nomination, an honor that by all accounts always makes him roll his eyes. The scripts are developed in tandem with his casts over a lengthy and involved gestation period, and what they ultimately bear is his sensibility, whether he’s telling a story of Gilbert and Sullivan (1999’s Topsy-Turvy) or this one, which charts a set of relationships over the course of a year. When Alan Alda attempted such a story, in 1981’s The Four Seasons, there was plenty of sweet to go along with the bitter, which wasn’t all that bitter to begin with. Leigh is much more of a clinician, and what he diagnoses isn’t pretty.

It is, however, riveting. Gerri is happily married to Tom (Jim Broadbent), a geologist–an appropriate profession given their rock-solid bond. The union receives a few tests over the year, some from family (Tom’s down-at-heel brother and sister-in-law are in a state of decline) but most from friends–indeed, one friend, Mary (Lesley Manville), Gerri’s co-worker. A life of the party for whom the party has stopped in middle age, Mary, divorced and childless, puts up a sagging false front of conviviality, held together by alcohol. Tom and Gerri try to set her up, not for the first time, with Tom’s equally unhappy but smitten friend Ken (Peter Wight)–Mary, however, is repulsed, seeing in his piggy, red-rimmed eyes her future. She’d rather pursue a weird flirtation with Tom and Gerri’s 30-year-old son Joe (Oliver Maltman), another door that threatens to close for her over the course of a mundane but seismic twelve months.

Alarmingly well-played by Manvile, Mary is the opposite of the irrepressible life force Sally Hawkins played in Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky…or, maybe, a similar character farther down the road in life, with fewer options. The other performers, all excellent, play different tone: Joe, fascinatingly, manipulates Mary’s feelings for him, for what could be a host of reasons that Leigh keeps close to his vest, not wanting to intrude on what we might think. It’s not easy playing genteel people who have everything they’ve wanted in life, but watch how Sheen and Broadbent communicate more with their eyes than with words. I wouldn’t say that Leigh is critical of their relationship, not (never) outwardly. But its existence has a way of destabilizing others, and when challenged the gap between what Tom and Gerri (it’s meant to be funny, tiresomely funny) say and what they only say to each other is ferociously breached. That final pan around a table, executed by Leigh’s indispensable DP Dick Pope, could not be more precise or devastating.

“What would you like to have?” asks Gerri of Janet. “A different life,” Janet snaps, before disappearing from Another Year. And you thought Liam Neeson had problems…

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