Written PostFrom the DVD Shelf: Empire of the Sun

From the DVD Shelf: Empire of the Sun

Last month I wrote about discovering and really enjoying, in college, some films from what I consider to be Steven Spielberg’s “middle period,” in which he began moving from the crowd-pleasing adventure films that he did so well (epitomized by Raiders of the Lost Ark) to more serious dramatic material (Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, etc.)  Rewatching The Color Purple for the first time in a decade, I found that there was still a lot to enjoy, though in some ways I felt the film was a bit simplistic.  (Click here for my full review.)

But I found myself quite mesmerized by Empire of the Sun when I re-watched it last month (also for the first time in about ten years).  This is a dramatically under-rated movie, and a strong piece of Mr. Spielberg’s over-all filmography.

Young Jim Graham is a spoiled British schoolboy, living with his parents in great luxury in Shanghai in 1941.  When the Japanese invade, he is separated from his parents in the chaotic evacuation of British citizens and is left to his own devices to try to survive in the dangerous war-time world.

Whereas I found The Color Purple to have a bit too much schmaltz, Empire of the Sun is surprisingly tough in its depiction of Jim’s four-year ordeal in war-torn China.  Although the film centers on a young boy (as do many of Spielberg’s films — see ET: The Extra-Terrestrial, AI: Artificial Intelligence, etc.), this is — for the most part — a tough, honest film.  There are moments of Spielbergian romanticization — mostly having to do with Jim’s fascination with airplanes — but I found those to be moving scenes that furthered my emotional connection with the story being told, rather than distracting me from the reality of Jim’s situation.

That’s a tough balance to find — but when he’s at the top of his game, no one is better at finding that balance than Steven Spielberg.  And he does fine work here.  There are long stretches of the film without any dialogue, propelled by the gorgeous and haunting imagery (and a lush but not overly intrusive score by John Williams).  When there is dialogue, it’s tight, well-written stuff penned by Tom Stpppard (Brazil, Shakespeare in Love).

Spielberg is well known — and rightfully so — for his skill in getting strong performances from his child actors, and Empire of the Sun is a stand-out in that department.  Jim is played by a young Christain Bale (who’s been having quite a moment, playing Bruce Wayne in Batman Begins & the Dark Knight as well as a variety of other high-profile roles in films such as The Prestige, Terminator: Salvation, and Public Enemies).  It’s a lot of fun seeing young Mr. Bale at work here, and he turns in an intense, totally believable performance.  This film rests on Bale’s shoulders — he’s in practically every single scene — and he is quite impressive.  Jim has to age from 9 to about 14 over the course of the film, and travel a long road of hardship, and Bale plays this transformation of his character beautifully.

The supporting cast is also wonderfully eccentric.  Of particular note is John Malkovich, who plays Basie, the cunning, do-anything-to-survive American whose path intertwines with Jim’s.  This performance is a reminder of just how great Mr. Malkovich can be when given a role that he can really sink his teeth into.  Basie is kind and cruel, warm and very dangerous — an intriguing, dynamic character.  Joe Pantoliano (another actor you might not expect to see in this type of film) is also a lot of fun as Basie’s sort-of sidekick Frank.

This is an often over-looked film that deserves some more attention than it usually receives.  Check it out!

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