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Kingsley recasts himself anew in Polanski's Maiden

Death and the Maiden

Directed by Roman Polanski.

Based on the play by Ariel Dorfman.

Starring Sigourney Weaver, Ben Kingsley, and Stuart Wilson.

Sony Copley Place.

By Carrie E. Perlman

Staff Reporter

Roman Polanski's recent film Death and the Maiden is a psychological thriller made all the more frightening by the knowledge that it is based upon the political tactic of terror employed by many dictatorships in South America. The film, which maintains clear ties to the dramatic form of Ariel Dorfman's original play, takes place over the course of a stormy night. Yet, by the time we arrive at the climactic scene, the storm has disappeared and there is no music dictating the mood. Only quiet and daylight remain: The drama is strong enough to stand on its own. The absence of the typical Hollywood pace to which we are all accustomed means the plot does progress slowly, but it is worthwhile adjusting to the film's suspenseful pace.

The film is set in a recently-turned-democratic South American country where the terror of former dictatorship still lingers. Sigourney Weaver plays Paulina Escobar, a woman who believes she recognizes, by the sound of his voice, the man who tortured her years before to the tune of Schubert's Death and the Maiden. This man is a reputable doctor, played by Ben Kingsley.

The well constructed plot nicely orchestrates the relations between the three characters, and each one of these relations is impeded by the unknown details of Paulina's torture. These unknown details leave a chasm between Paulina and her husband. They cast suspicion between the doctor and the husband, who defends the doctor in a mock trial. And they are the root of Paulina's loathing for the doctor. Weaver gives a strong performance as Paulina in her crazed state of revenge and her pursuit of the truth. Stuart Wilson plays her husband, who, like the audience, is unsure whether his wife is taking revenge upon the correct man. Wilson makes the best of what is certainly the weakest of the three roles.

As is always true of Ben Kingsley's roles, his performance as the doctor is totally fresh. None of his past characters are recognizable in the doctor; Kingsley has undergone total transformation. His performance is fantastic: One cannot decide whether the doctor performed the alleged acts or is an innocent man wrongly accused. This character is a study in the possibility that the depths of human evil may lay dormant just below the surface.

Throughout the film, sincere belief in democracy is juxtaposed with the instinctive emotions which are the motivation behind both torture and revenge. At what point is the need for revenge sated and with how much memory of the past can one bear to live? The film ends in perfect irony as it provides one answer to these questions.