It is often strange how the careers of actors and directors tend to move in cycles. When you’re up, you’re up and studios seem willing to make almost anything your name is attached to no matter how awful (See the early career of Colin Farrell). The flip side of course is that when you are out of favour, you can’t get a film made for love nor money. While accepting his Oscar earlier this year, Ben Affleck noted how his career had been affected by negative publicity and indeed how he felt like he would never work again. Of course the cycles come and go and I’d like to think that if somebody is talented they will continue to find work. One such example would be the star of today’s flick, Sean Connery. Now of course Connery is enjoying a well-earned retirement with a hard fought reputation as a screen icon. However, it was not always thus. In 1986 when Jean-Jacques Annaud was casting his adaptation of Umberto Eco’s surprise bestseller, Connery’s name was one of the last on the list. The studio would have preferred to have cast almost anyone other than him and when he was cast Columbia pulled their financing. This is perhaps not surprising given where his career was at the time. He was on quite a streak of failures stretching back to 1979’s misbegotten Cuba and including an ill-advised and unofficial return to James Bond in 1983’s Never Say Never Again. Included in this period is something called Sword of the Valiant: The Legend of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight which I will admit to knowing almost nothing about beyond its thoroughly awful rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
Connery was eventually cast in the role of William of Baskervile, a Franciscan monk and intellectual who strives for knowledge while Europe is in the dark ages. Together with his young disciple Adso, ably played by a very young Christian Slater, William travels to a Benedictine Abbey in the mountains of northern Italy. Upon his arrival, it becomes apparent that all is not well with the monks. One of their number has fallen to his death from a tower above the library which the abbey is famed for. The Abbot, played with characteristic understatement by Michael Lonsdale, asks William to investigate the death. Together with Adso he sets about the desk with a zeal for finding the truth. Along the way he attempts to impart something of his knowledge to the naïve Adso. However as further deaths begin to occur, William realises that he is in a race against time to catch a killer intent on covering his tracks before the arrival of the evil inquisitor Bernardo Gui with whom William has a complicated history. He quickly becomes drawn into a plot involving a lust for knowledge, sexual power and the very nature of religion.
Half the battle in any production such as this is having a good story around which to build your film. In this case Umberto Eco’s superb novel is rich in detail and atmosphere and offers a bounty for any film adaptation. Annaud’s tone is consistently dark throughout which feels to me to be in line with the novel and helps to create an atmosphere of dread as it sweeps through the Abbey. The monks are men of learning and language who live in splendid isolation from the squalor of the peasants who live outside their walls yet they are if anything equally immoral if not more so than the flock they seem to despise. Ultimately nothing is black or white and all of the monks are cast in shades of grey. The film also deviates from the book in avoiding great detail of the ecclesiastical split between the different orders of monks and how it had affected the Church at the time, something that while interesting would not make for thrilling viewing.
Of course it helps to have a great cast and in this regard the film’s cup overfloweth. For all the travails around his casting, Connery is nothing less than superb in the role of William bringing wit and charm to the character. Plaudits must also go to the then hilariously young Christian Slater who really makes you wonder how all that talent was pissed away over the years. Ron Perlman is almost unrecognisable as the brutish grotesque Salvatore and he is joined in the cast by the likes of F. Murray Abraham and the gorgeous Valentina Vargas.
A commercial failure in the US, the film became a runaway success in Europe including being the highest grossing film of the year in France. For Sean Connery it marked the start of a welcome return to form. He would close out the decade with hits like The Untouchables, The Presidio with a young and irritating Meg Ryan and of course Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade and The Hunt for Red October. Such is the nature of career cycles .