|The Quiet American is visually dramatic from its first frame and doesn’t let up on its emphasis of creating a lush physical setting for its characters to inhabit until the last frame of the film. But with some troubles in story and character, the film doesn’t arrive at its end without a few slips. The first element which appears to be more of a mistake in casting than in script, is the almost goofy appearance of Brenden Fraser as an American doctor working in Vietnam. Though he cuts a fine figure in his 1950’s style dress, his delivery just doesn’t ring true for the part.|
And this is a shame since Fraser has had success in portraying dramatic roles in the past. Though his comedic side has always benefited whatever movie he has starred in, for The Quiet American, his style seemed out of place. And playing alongside one of England’s most venerated actors, Fraser just can’t seem to keep up with the dramatic force of Michael Caine. With a penchant for timely humor and an absolute lock on the dramatic side, Caine proves yet again why he should be on the screen all the time. His portrayal as an opium addicted reporter living in Vietnam has depth and feeling beyond the words that come out of his character’s mouth.
His performance is so convincing, in fact, that the extended amount of time spent introducing his character and the others of the film runs far too long. Perhaps the pace of the film is to languid in general to allow it to feel engaging enough for its subject. The violence in Vietnam during this time is shown in suitably traumatic battle sequences with many human injuries and explosions, but the “downtime” between those scenes represents an unneeded lull in the action. The amount of principal characters in American is only around five, so getting on with, as one might say, would have been beneficial to the running time of the film.
Which, ironically, isn’t even two hours. That the film is under the standard two hour mark and still feels long means that the screenwriter failed to create sufficient dramatic stakes and the editor didn’t increase the overall pace of the film. And with the shallow character offering from Do Thi Hai Yen, who plays “Phuong,” the object of desire for Caine and Fraser’s characters, it might be easy to say that the screenplay could have used some spicing up. Though her time on screen is convincing, it isn’t passionate enough and her character has very few intelligent things to say.
So while Brenden’s character had enough depth and dialogue and just suffered from being cast wrong, Yen’s character benefited from a good performance that just didn’t have enough spirit. One of the best characters in the film though was played by Tzi Ma, who portrays Caine’s secretary, “Hinh.” Ma’s performance had weight and believability and he was able to hold his own very well in his scenes with Caine. So taking into account the discrepancy in how excellent or insignificant the character development and acting appeared it is still safe to say that this film has more hits than misses.
Something interesting about the story at large is that the novel upon which the movie is based, written by author Graham Greene, was published before the escalated involvement of the United States military in Vietnam. It is hard to say whether Greene’s novel just happened to become a timely piece on the situation that was to develop in that country, or if director Phillip Noyce simply put his own “timely” information in the film. There is in fact a series of newspaper clippings at the end of the film that track the US involvement and the start of the war, but they seem to harm the film, rather than benefit it.
It is doubtless Noyce wanted to make his own statement about the era, but he got carried away in trying to show the consequences of the United States’s participation. The effectiveness of Caine’s performance and the basic story of the film (an opium addicted reporter’s resentment of a potential rival for the woman he loves) are overtaken by much larger ideas. There is one conversation between Fraser and Caine’s characters that takes place during the bombing of a remote Vietnamese village that is effective in its combining of the political statement and the story, but this harmony doesn’t show itself anywhere else in the film.
Whether the ideas on war are valid or not is inconsequential since they overshadow the personal drama of the film. Noyce’s combination of political alertness and fictional character drama simply was not able to mesh well in his interpretation of Greene’s novel. Perhaps it is worthwhile that the film attempts to show an opinion on the strife in Vietnam, even if the message isn't always dramatic. But that would make the film more a history lesson than a dramatic film, and Caine’s performance and the well-shot cinematography and art direction deserve more than to be treated like a school lecture.
Review by Kelsey Wyatt.