The Quiet American  – ★★★★1/2
Directed by Phillip Noyce (Patriot Games (1992)), The Quiet American (2002) is a marvellous adaptation of Graham Greene’s classic novel of the same name. This book-to-film adaptation is so good, it arguably suppresses the majority of previous Graham Greene novel adaptations, and the film is certainly better than the latest Greene novel adaptation Brighton Rock (2010). The Quiet American captures the spirit of the book, and even at times goes beyond the boundaries of the book’s captivating narrative.
For those who are unfamiliar with the story, The Quiet American follows two main developments. Firstly, there is a love triangle between an older British reporter Thomas Fowler (Michael Caine), based in Saigon, Vietnam, an idealistic young man Alden Pyle (Brendan Fraser), an aid worker, and a young and beautiful native Vietnamese woman, Phuong. Secondly, there are war developments concerning the increasing involvement of the US government into the Vietnamese political affairs, subsequently leading to the Vietnam War.
The Quiet American, shot on location, was actually scheduled for the autumn 2001 release, but due to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, was pushed back to 2002, as Miramax Films thought the film would be considered too anti-American at that time. Nevertheless, in September 2001, The Quiet American was critically appraised at the Toronto Film Festival, which prompted its speedy theatrical release in December of that year in the US. Comparing this adaptation to The Quiet American (1958) directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz (All About Eve (1950)), it is only necessary to point out that the 1958 film does not stay true to the novel and was even criticised by Greene himself at the time for “diluting his attack on the US foreign policy” (the film makes the CIA look rather good). Though the crew production is hardly to blame for this defect, as the US was still very “sensitive” to the topic in the late 1950s, the 1958 film suffers from other major drawbacks, such as mediocre acting.
One of the reasons why The Quiet American (2002) is so successful as a film may have something to do with the casting choices here, which are simply perfect. Michael Caine fits the profile of Thomas Fallow so well that it is hard to imagine anyone else in that role. He seems to represent the very definition of “Britishness” – he is fair, witty and full of “common sense”, although may appear too kind and sympathetic than would have been desired by the author. Brendan Fraser also could not have been more perfectly cast. Fraser is an actor who seems to be “an American through-and-through”, with his distinguished accent and all-American build, which accentuates ambition and confidence. It is hard to picture anyone else than Fraser in this role, and the director’s first choice, Heath Ledger, was, arguably, “too Australian” for it.
Another thing which contributes to this film’s captivating force is the brilliant acting. The acting is so good that the best scenes in The Quiet American are not the action scenes, portraying war affairs, but the scenes where the three main characters are together and interacting with one other. Michael Caine does a magnificent job portraying Thomas Fallow, and probably gives the best performance of his career. In fact, as many critics had pointed out – this film is a “must-see” because of Michael Caine’s effortless acting. Brendan Fraser is also surprisingly good and convincing, and it is very interesting to see the change that his character is undergoing throughout the film story. The directing is also good, and the film has a clear, structured sequence. Noyce’s attention to detail is to be applauded: everything, from the meticulous design of Fowler’s office to the elaborate dressings of Vietnamese girls is given due attention.
The film also feels very “complete” and “satisfying”, accentuating the most interesting moments in the novel. The Quiet American touches upon such topics alluded in the novel as the moral dilemmas of right and wrong, peoples’ private and public lives and their equilibrium, and also, of course, love, friendship and betrayal. Unlike the majority of other dramas in this genre, the film never bores, and truly immerses the viewer into the story, making the audience to really care about the characters’ actions, emotions and thoughts.
It is impossible to finish the review without mentioning the film’s soundtrack produced by Craig Armstrong. The soundtrack is beautiful and fits the picture well. The end titles feature the song Nothing in this World, and is sung by Hong Nhung.
Although The Quiet American may not be as original or “political” as some would probably desire it to be, the film is still an intelligent, gripping drama, which is an absolute pleasure to watch.
4 Comments Add yours
An excellent review. It’s one of the best novel-to-film adaptations in my opinion, for it doesn’t shy away from complexity. The actual location filming definitely added to the film.
I haven’t seen this one but I am adding it to my rental list. Thanks!
Hi, db and company:
Concise, worthwhile review!
Michael Caine, like Anthony Hopkins excels in underplaying a character. One who sits quietly or half in the shadows and watches and waits and connects the dots. In ‘The Quiet American’ he pulls the plow with a sly wink and a grin as he wises up Brendan Frasier’s Alden Pyle as to how thing work in and away from Saigon.
Kind of a watered down version of what I would expect if John LeCarre’s ‘The Honorable Schoolboy’ were put to film telling of Jerry Westerby’s adventures in South East Asia.
Also nice seeing Frasier holding his own against the master.