The Man From London (A Londoni Férfi) first published by Film4
Review: “Don’t follow me too soon… Wait a good two minutes.”
These are the first words heard in Béla Tarr and Ágnes Hranitzky’s The Man From London (A Londoni Férfi), whispered in the night and fog by the English thief Brown (János Derzsi) to his soon-to-be-dead accomplice Teddy – and they constitute something of a joke in this otherwise utterly sombre film. Two minutes is a long time to wait in terms of conventional film economy, but Tarr and Hranitzky set these words within a virtuosic single take that lasts more than five times that. As Fred Kelemen’s camera tracks, tilts, pans and zooms in slow, deliberate movements that disguise as realism the sequence’s great artistry, we take in the docked ship, the conspiratorial exchange on board, a surreptitious off-loading of a suitcase, the departure of a train, and the presence of a figure watching the panorama unfold from the vantage of his elevated workpost.
This is Maloin (Miroslav Krobot), a middle-aged railway switchman doing the nightshift. After seeing Brown push Teddy into the wintry water, Maloin retrieves the cash-filled suitcase that was the object of the two men’s murderous scuffling, and begins quietly to entertain the hope that his loveless marriage to Camélia (Tilda Swinton), the prospects of his daughter Henriette (Erika Bók), and his own dead-end life, might all be about to change for the better. But when Morrison (István Lénárt), a lugubrious police inspector from London, arrives the following day intending to settle the case “in a nice, friendly way”, a sense of guilt settles over the harbour town as fast and all-enveloping as the local mist.
Freely adapted from Georges Simenon‘s 1934 detective novel, The Man From London certainly opens like a film noir, all shady business conducted by trench-coated men in stylish half light – but in reality it is a grim morality tale, measuring out the human condition in its bare locations and frozen faces. Largely free of dialogue, with only Morrison and the waterfront hotelier (Gyula Pauer) getting to speak in whole sentences, Tarr and Hranitzky’s film has mere ciphers for its characters, and offers a drama stripped to its barest bones. The result is, at least in formal terms, a highly impressive work, with the exploratory precision of Tarr’s trademark long takes, the haunting intensity of Mihály Vig’s drone-based score, and the dignified minimalism of the performances, all combining to create an austere aesthetic in keeping with the film’s bleak themes.
If only, however, there were a little more substance to reward those willing to endure the film’s painfully slow accumulation of details and complete absence of human warmth. Of course no self-respecting fan of Tarr’s earlier masterpieces Satantango (1994) and Werckmeister Harmonies (2000) will require much encouragement to see this, but if truth be told The Man From London is an altogether thinner affair, and is unlikely to win the filmmaker any new devotees. The protagonist Maloin is not so much an everyman as a no-man, sketched so vaguely that any emotional or psychological engagement with him and his ethical quandary is next to impossible – and Swinton too is wasted here, inhabiting a rôle characterised with such spareness that few will feel Tarr and Hranitzky have really earned the right to point the camera at her anguished visage for several unbroken minutes. That said, the inestimable gravity that Lénárt (think Max von Sydow, only craggier) brings to Inspector Morrison ensures that every scene in which he appears is riveting.
Tarr and Hranitzky’s opening, self-conscious joke recurs near the film’s end, when Inspector Morrison says to Brown’s wife (Ági Szirtes) “Please, sit down and be patient.” Instead she gets ups and leaves – and no doubt some viewers, finding their own patience tested to the limits by the filmmakers’ snail-like pacing, will already have done the same. Which is a pity, because The Man From London is, for all its failure to hold the interest, a work of immense technical accomplishment and chiaroscuro beauty from Hungary’s foremost auteur – a filmmaker worth watching even when not at his best.
Verdict: As slow-moving, oppressive and icy as a winter fog, Béla Tarr and Ágnes Hranitzky’s noirish drama of temptation and guilt beguiles – but also, frankly, bores.
© Anton Bitel