The Year of Living Dangerously  – ★★★★
💥 Peter Weir’s The Year of Living Dangerously, starring Mel Gibson, Sigourney Weaver and Linda Hunt, is an underrated romantic drama and adventure film set in the backdrop to Indonesia’s political unrest of the mid-1960s when the country was making its transition to the so-called “New Order”. The film, based on the novel by Christopher Koch, was, therefore, banned in Indonesia until 1999.
By way of introduction, the film quickly centres on Guy Hamilton (Mel Gibson), a young, somewhat idealistic Australian journalist sent to Indonesia on the mission to gather in-depth information on the politically-unstable country, then governed by President Sukarno. While there, Guy strikes friendship with Billy Kwan (Linda Hunt), a cameraman, who supports Guy and helps him to gather intelligence for his articles through his personal contacts. Soon, Guy becomes romantically involved with Jill Bryant (Sigourney Weaver), a British Embassy officer. As the situation in Indonesia worsens and Guy and Jill’s attachment deepens, the audience witnesses personal tragedies and new-found joys unfold.
The Year of Living Dangerously does everything that a film of this genre is supposed to do. It makes good use of location (be it Philippians, rather than Indonesia, though), taking the viewer through the streets of a foreign country, pointing out its beauty, but, also, its freshly-inflicted “wounds” and hidden dangers. The film also makes full advantage of native people residing there, bravely dealing with such issues as poverty and women’s sexual exploitation. In this sense, The Year of Living Dangerously is on par with other successful films set in an exotic location, but coming out decades later, notably Seven Years in Tibet (1997), The Quiet American (2002) and The Painted Veil (2006). The film’s best scenes, though, are those portraying the unlucky friendship, a sense of camaraderie, developing between Guy and Billy, as they partner together for news reportages.
The “highlight” of The Year of Living Dangerously is, of course, Linda Hunt’s performance. Quite astonishingly, Linda Hunt plays a man in the film, a cameraman, Billy. Hunt performs her job so amazingly well that it is very hard to believe that Billy is played by a woman. Hunt’s Academy Award is well-deserved here, and, in fact, she became the first person to win an Academy Award for playing a character of the opposite sex. Gibson’s performance is also good in this movie, with the actor just coming off Mad Max’ (1979) and Mad Max 2 (1981) sets, and Sigourney Weaver is equally decent, although occasionally missing her British accent.
Remarkably, The Year of Living Dangerously fared rather badly at the Academy Awards ceremony 1983, having had only one nomination and only one win. This circumstance is even more amazing when one thinks of the kind of films which were nominated for that year, especially in the “Best Picture” category, for example, The Big Chill (1983) and Tender Mercies (1983). Arguably, these two films do not even come close to the standard set by The Year of Living Dangerously. The consolation, however, comes in the form of praise and much critical acclaim accorded to the film at its screening during the Cannes Film Festival 1983.
Yet, something is not quite right with this film. The plot seems to include too many political “intricacies” and other similar issues for the viewer to really care of what is going on in Jakarta. The film fails to impress on the level to which it aspires. It may be a deeply romantic movie, set in a beautiful location, with a war waging on and love blossoming, but it falls short of becoming a truly epic movie. The problem may be the lack of imagination on the director’s part. However, the definite problem lies in the movie’s failure to connect the audience to the plot more fully, by explaining the situation behind each scene better or by delving deeper into the emotional states of the main characters. For example, although the chemistry between Weaver and Gibson is good, the loving relationship developed between the characters could have been explored better. Such movies as Out of Africa (1985) and The English Patient (1996) do so with a much greater success and without loosing the political overtones surrounding the main story, or compromising their quality.
Despite its negative features, The Year of Living Dangerously is still a good film, elevated by the excellent, courageous performance from Linda Hunt; and its emphasis on the characters and the story, rather than on the special effects and the “decorations”, is admirable. In this sense, the film still remains “in the league of its own”, to be compared to the best “adventure” films of the 1980s.