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Calm in the Storm

A review of The Quiet American

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*The Quiet American (R)
Miramax

In 1955, British novelist Graham Greene wrote a slim novel that turned out to be as quiet as it was disquieting. Touching on major themes of love and loyalty, youth and aging, sovereignty and colonialism, The Quiet American told a timeless, universal story as stealthily and economically as can be imagined.

Director Phillip Noyce has maintained the economy and dignity of Greene's novel in his screen adaptation starring Michael Caine and Brendan Fraser, and with cinematographer Christopher Doyle, has brought 1950s Saigon to languorous, luxurious life.

Caine plays British journalist Thomas Fowler, a correspondent for The London Times who has comfortably settled in with a beautiful young Vietnamese mistress, Phuong (Do Thi Hai Yen) and who occasionally drops a missive to his London office, but more enthusiastically pursues Saigon caf society and the carnal pleasures of Phuong and his nighttime opium habit.

Just as Fowler receives a wake-up telegram from London announcing that the paper doesn't require his presence in Saigon any more, a young American, Alden Pyle (Brendan Fraser) arrives on the scene. Awkward and enthusiastic, Pyle introduces himself as a medical aid worker, there to fight a pervasive infectious parasite. In short order, he too becomes enamored of Phuong.

Fowler's and Pyle's friendship is bonded when they both venture north and witness a village massacre. Fowler knows it's not the work of either the French or the Communists, but he doesn't know that Pyle knows it's the work of a new guerilla faction, headed by the mysterious General The and armed by the United States CIA.

With acts of terrorism swirling in the streets around them, Fowler, Pyle and Phuong are engaged in a love triangle that threatens to disrupt Fowler's chosen life. Pyle, knowing that Fowler can never marry Phuong because his wife in London will never give him a divorce, proposes marriage to her and takes her away from his friend.

From here, a dance of friendship and romance turns into a dance of deception that relies heavily on Michael Caine's facial expressions for its considerable emotional resonance. The dialogue is spare, but his anguish rings loud. He doesn't have to say that without Phuong he will die, though he does; we already know that she is his very breath as he faces old age, the end of an era of beauty and romance, and the intrusion into Saigon of brash youth, nave idealism and deadly armaments. Deservedly nominated for an Academy Award as Best Actor, Caine gives weight and meaning to every word he utters, and even more to all that he doesn't say, but purely acts.

Fraser is particularly adept at his role as well. Large and clumsy, dressed in white linen, he's a grinning American hulk among the delicately boned Vietnamese, playing the role with deliberate physicality. Hai Yen brings great dignity to the role of concubine, playing Phuong as a woman who has fallen in social status while maintaining her gentle, refined soul.

The Quiet American is a quiet and lovely film, anchored by a delicate friendship, and colored by the foreshadowing of world-changing events. The quasi-historic text has much resonance for today's audience as the world shifts its attentions, its intelligence gathering and its arms dealings from the Far East to the Middle East.

--Kathryn Eastburn

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