Greystoke ought to work. From the opening, it really seems like it might. It survives a massive narrative hiccup–switching perspective from young Tarzan to explorer Ian Holm. It establishes people in ape costumes as believable, sympathetic, feeling characters. It’s got beautiful cinematography, Hugh Hudson’s a fine director, and John Scott’s got one great score for the film. But it fails in the end. It doesn’t sputter out–the second half of the film, the return to civilization, is lengthy and problematic, but it isn’t failing–the film fails in the third act. It becomes contrived and trite, something the entire civilization half always teeters on anyway.
The script’s constantly reminding the viewer of previous scenes (death is a big thing, all the major death scenes are the same) and it’s unclear why the screenwriters went the hackneyed route. There’s a lot of aversion in Greystoke–the film avoids addressing both Christopher Lambert’s loincloth and lack of facial hair–but the film’s straight-forward attempt at telling its story, with the beautifully produced ape scenes, is creative. The problem seems to be a storytelling one (there are some production problems I’ll get to in a minute) and it has to do with perspective. The film’s not comfortable making grown Tarzan (Lambert) the protagonist. He’s always the subject. When Tarzan’s a kid, he can be the dialogue-free protagonist… but as an adult capable of speech, the film abandons him. Instead, it’s all about Ralph Richardson, Ian Holm and John Wells observing him.
The Ralph Richardson scenes are fine. He and Lambert have a definite chemistry, and so do Lambert and Holm. The Holm scenes aren’t as good, because the film avoids the most interesting part–how he and Lambert get from Africa to England–but whatever. As soon as they leave the jungle, Greystoke‘s on the path toward being a BBC winter fiasco. The constant voiceovers (both Lambert and Richardson think of previous conversations in the film, to show the viewer what they’re thinking) don’t help at all.
The film doesn’t even stay with Lambert at the end, instead going with Andie MacDowell. MacDowell’s performance is poor, even with the obvious hurdle–the poorly synced dub by Glenn Close–because it’s clear MacDowell isn’t taking the film’s events seriously. Occasionally, when she’s silent and looking around, she’s fine. But mostly she’s just bad.
Lambert is good. He isn’t silly in the jungle scenes and he’s genuinely effecting in the civilization half. Some of it comes from his lack of affected accent–and lack of dialogue–but I was pleasantly surprised with his performance. It’s too bad he doesn’t get to be the main character. Again, whatever.
The film is long, though the jungle scenes are really well paced, and rather jejune. Even with Richardson’s good performance, it only goes so far. If the script is repetitive, Hudson is obvious and the combination leads to a rather unrewarding experience.
Given the film has quite a few excellent scenes, it’s a strange it isn’t a cohesive experience. Hudson doesn’t bring much unified vision to it though and that lack might be the missing glue. The film’s last scene looks entirely different from any of the previous scenes, which makes the conclusion disconnect even more.
But with John Alcott’s photography, John Scott’s score, the wonderful Rick Baker ape make-up… it should have worked.