IN A SAVAGE LAND IN A SAVAGE LAND IN A SAVAGE LAND
directed by Bill Bennett, written and produced by Bill and Jennifer Bennett, with Maya Stange, Martin Donovan and Rufus Sewell. 115 minutes. A TVA International production. Opens Friday (February 2). For venues and times, see First-Run Movies, page 65. Rating: NN in a savage land is three movies in one, and that spells disaster. The first is a Merchant-Ivoryish dissection of a marriage set against Papua New Guinea's erotic Trobriand Islands. We meet the couple in Australia, where Philip Spence (Martin Donovan) is an anthropology professor and Evelyn (newcomer Maya Stange) is his star pupil. Their courtship progresses swiftly, captured in gorgeous orange and mustard hues that help distract us from the opaqueness of the actors.
Then the Spences embark on a year-long mission to study the free-lovin' ways of the Trobriand women.
Here's where the film ought to get interesting. Plunking a conventional 1940s couple into the midst of a sexually free society could spark all sorts of trouble.
The problem is, the Spences aren't a realistic 40s couple. They're caricatures made to serve the revisionist goals of the filmmakers. He's a domineering jerk and she's a shrill, self-important feminist. He expects her to type his notes. She insists on doing her own research.
In a telling scene, she's accused of self-interest by a pearl trader named Mick (Rufus Sewell). He's right: Evelyn just wants to prove herself, and never actually helps the villagers. It's too bad the filmmakers didn't pursue this idea -- they could have fleshed out a fascinating, three-dimensional character.
Instead, the Merchant-Ivory angle is abandoned in favour of a Harlequin romance. Evelyn is attracted to Mick for no obvious reason other than his dashing looks. She continues trying to be an anthropologist even though her stunning lack of judgment has already caused one tragedy.
Then the second world war, which has been mentioned in passing, like the weather, breaks out, and we're in a third movie about war-torn lovers.
Stange throws herself into the role with Oscar-bait abandon, indulging in the kind of righteous indignation that only Denzel Washington can pull off. Filmmakers have to realize that good roles for women involve more than just letting them cry, yell and be right all the time. KIM LINEKIN