Starring: Al Pacino, Jessica Chastain
Director: Al Pacino
Oscar Wilde’s ornately written drama about the death of John the Baptist at the hands of the Princess of Judea isn’t exactly an obvious candidate for a film adaptation. Richard Strauss’ opera version aside, it’s a work that has always seemed best left tucked away between the covers of lavish illustrated editions for the wealthy collector. But that is to reckon without Al Pacino. In his hands, this piece sheds its veils of fin de siecle mistiness to suddenly seem alive and highly relevant.
Restricting the action almost entirely to one very plain set, the oppressive mood of trauma he conjures up isn’t miles away from that of a Tennessee Williams play. Jessica Chastain’s Salome is right out of Williams – a spoiled brat whose acting out and air of entitlement mask a hurt that is gnawing away at her. The insult from Herod she receives at the banquet, which sends her out onto the terrace at the start of the film, is presumably only the latest in a long line, and a modern audience understands immediately what kind of territory we’re in here. Pacino’s Herod is a neurotic flake, half-stoned and on the prowl, his eyes leering at Salome, and you wonder if his hands can be far behind. The impression that this is at heart a tale of common or garden domestic abuse is almost palpable.
And then there’s John the Baptist. Why is Salome is so fascinated by this beardy rebel down in his pit? Her infatuation always used to seem a bit random, but here you surmise it’s because he’s not afraid to roar out at the top of his voice everything she longs to say. She sees him as a soul mate. After all, they’re both, in different ways, Herod’s prisoners. But that’s not how he sees her. He spurns her advances with spectacular rudeness (“Daughter of Sodom, come not near me”).
The one shred of decency in Herod is that he protects the life of John the Baptist and will not hand him over to his enemies, sensing something holy and good in him, and it’s this that Salome picks away at when she demands the preacher’s head. If he will not comfort her, she will use him for her revenge.
What’s impressive about this film version is the way that it makes all of this so clear, cutting to the heart of Wilde’s text, and brewing an atmosphere of impending violence. It injects grit into the play’s swoony atmospherics and natural intonations into its declamatory lines. Pacino himself in excellent – where he describes the gifts that he will shower Salome with, you can see them, because he’s seeing them too. Chastain is equally good – her looks have a Pre-Raphaelite quality that Wilde would have appreciated, but her manner is modern, spiky, tense, eager to vent and looking for trouble.
As for the dance of the seven veils, it’s more like the 3½ veils, as Chastain stops well short of the full monty, But if that seems a little half-hearted, in all other respects this is a red-blooded production that turns what one might have dismissed as an effete period piece into something immediate and alive with pain.
Wilde Salome gives the background to the making of the film, and a lot more. The plan, we learn, was to put on the play in the evenings and then shoot it as a movie during the day, over a 5-day shoot, and make a documentary on top of that. As you might expect, things begin to give. The director of the stage version is unhappy that all of Pacino’s attention is focused on the movie. The theatre audiences – who have paid a hefty whack for their tickets – aren’t thrilled that what they are seeing is more like a read-through, with scripts onstage. Chaos reigns. There’s an amusing moment when Chastain turns up for what she thinks is going to be a dinner party only to find out that it’s also a shoot for Salome.
Most of the time, Pacino exudes energy, enthusiasm and good cheer, but when time constraints bite and the pressure mounts, you also get a glimpse of his Tony Montana side – and boy, is it scary. In addition, we see Pacino in Dublin and London and the hotel room in Paris where Wilde died, and in the Mojave desert with a camel, trying to get a feel for the play’s historical setting. The likes of Bono and Tom Stoppard chip in with their opinions, and there are bits of dramatic reconstruction (with Pacino playing Wilde!). It’s all bundled together in a fresh, funny, irreverent way, never taking itself too seriously. It’s more impressive as a portrait of Pacino than as a portrait of Wilde or Salome, but that’s no bad thing. Both films are a worthy tribute to a Hollywood star who’s still eager to have fun with his craft and try new things.
Both films will be released separately in UK cinemas following a special double bill screening event at BFI Southbank on 21 September, followed by a Q&A with Al Pacino and Jessica Chastain hosted by Stephen Fry broadcast live via satellite to cinemas across the UK. For participating cinemas and tickets – www.cinestage.co.uk/salome /