The Pelican Brief

(Alan J. Pakula, USA, 1993)


To say that The Pelican Brief is the best of the recent crop of John Grisham adaptations is not necessarily to say very much at all. Grisham's novels of political and legal intrigue (The Firm [1993], The Client [1994]) are proving remarkably resistant to cinematic translation. Much of the story usually has to be given over to cumbersome passages of verbal exposition, trying to clarify for the viewer just who did what to whom behind which closed door.

Still, if there is anyone suited to this type of material it is surely writer-director Alan J. Pakula (Klute, 1971). His career has been all at sea for quite a few years now, his style ill-suited to melodramatic thrillers such as Consenting Adults (1992). But this project puts Pakula back in All the President's Men (1976) territory, allowing him to exploit that terse, low key, minimal style at which he is so expert.

It is a typically convoluted Grisham tale of corruption, rendered by Pakula as a disquieting succession of uncanny portents, subtle threats and whispered instructions. When two Supreme Court judges are murdered, brilliant law student Darby (Julia Roberts) produces a hypothesis which disturbs government insiders. After Darby's teacher and lover Thomas (Sam Shepard) is also killed, she has only investigative reporter Gray (Denzel Washington) to turn to for help and protection.

As a thriller, The Pelican Brief displays a compelling sense of paranoia and offers a straightforward ecological and democratic message. More hidden themes truly animate the film. In Cahiers du cinéma, Bill Krohn has imaginatively compared it to Krzysztof Kieslowski's Three Colours: Blue (1993), for both movies project a florid fantasy of Woman as the symbol of Liberty.

Krohn is onto something here. However, where Kieslowski is free to express this theme simply through endless, luminous close-ups of Juliette Binoche, Pakula, party to the relaunching of Julia Roberts' magnificent career, has other, more onerous obligations. Incredible as it seems, the film actually contrives scenes the sole point of which is to have men commend Julia on her ravishing beauty. This is star vanity with a vengeance – and it is still happening over a decade later for the irrepressible Julia in Mona Lisa Smile (2004).

MORE Pakula: Rollover, Starting Over, The Sterile Cuckoo

© Adrian Martin September 1994

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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