The Clearing

(Pieter Jan Brugge, USA, 2004)


The Clearing is Hollywood’s idea of an art film. It takes a standard thriller plot – the kidnapping and ransom of a businessman – and then strips away most of the usual complications that ensure suspense.

As the narrative tension recedes, human relationships come into the foreground. Pieter Jan Brugge, making his directorial debut after producing several Michael Mann films, investigates the rocky foundations of a marriage.

Wayne (Robert Redford) and Eileen (Helen Mirren) are, superficially, a satisfied, affluent couple, with a few grown-up, well-adjusted kids. But, in the vein of The Deep End of the Ocean (1999), an unexpected catastrophe opens up the cracks in this family and allows us to peer inside at the truth.

There are two clearings in this movie: the literal one in the woods to which the nervous kidnapper Arnold (Willem Dafoe) takes Wayne, and the metaphoric clearing of past emotional baggage and secrets. Arnold, too, acts upon long-held, class-based resentments: in his unfulfilled ambition, he once intersected with an oblivious Wayne.

This film is dramatically slight and far too tentative. It tries to work via suggestion and atmosphere, but cannot avoid drawing matters to a laboriously spelt-out conclusion.

It is fascinating to compare Denis Lenoir’s cinematography here and in Demonlover (2002). Working with confident, innovative directors, Lenoir lets himself go, capturing the look and feel of the contemporary world in all its ephemeral complexity. Here he is constrained to local effects: a few out-of-focus frames or a spot of desaturated colour.

Michael Chekhov, the great teacher of acting, used to advise his pupils to refrain from moving their facial muscles excessively, and instead "radiate from the eyes". When Redford and Dafoe are together in a scene, it is a veritable radiation contest. It is instructive to watch them play their underwritten exchanges.

The one moment in The Clearing that will win enthusiastic assent from most viewers is when Wayne, about twenty years too late, realises that his wife is beautiful. Mirren, like Charlotte Rampling, brings a rare combination of dignity, intelligence, vulnerability and mature eroticism to her roles. And when she radiates, she easily beats all the male competition.

MORE Redford: Quiz Show, Up Close & Personal, Indecent Proposal, Sneakers, The Horse Whisperer, The Legend of Bagger Vance

© Adrian Martin November 2004

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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