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  • TBC
  • Crime, Drama
  • 2007
  • 139 mins

The Man From London

The Man From London


Hungarian auteur Béla Tarr fills his spare waterfront noir with the shadowy morality of crime and punishment


"Don't follow me too soon... Wait a good two minutes."

These are the first words heard in Béla Tarr's The Man From London, whispered in the night and fog by the English thief Brown (Derzsi) to his soon-to-be-dead accomplice Teddy - and they constitute something of a joke in this otherwise utterly sombre film.

Two minutes is a long time to wait in terms of conventional film economy, but Tarr sets these words within an extraordinary single take that lasts more than five times that. As the camera tracks, tilts, pans and zooms in slow, deliberate movements that disguise the sequence's great artistry as realism, we take in the docked ship, the conspiratorial exchange on board, a surreptitious off-loading of a suitcase, the departure of a train, and the presence of a figure watching the panorama unfold from the vantage of his elevated work post.

This is Maloin (Krobot), a middle-aged railway switchman doing the nightshift. After seeing Brown push Teddy into the wintry water, Maloin retrieves the cash-filled suitcase that was the object of the two men's murderous scuffling, and begins quietly to entertain the hope that his loveless marriage to Camélia (Swinton), the prospects of his daughter Henriette (Bók), and his own dead-end life, might all be about to change for the better. But when Morrison (Lénárt), a lugubrious police inspector from London, arrives the following day intending to settle the case "in a nice, friendly way", a sense of guilt settles over the harbour town as fast and all-enveloping as the local mist.

Freely adapted from Georges Simenon's detective novel, The Man From London certainly opens like a film noir, all shady business conducted by trench-coated men in stylish half light - but in reality it is a grim morality tale, measuring out the human condition in its bare locations and frozen faces.

Largely free of dialogue with only Morrison and the waterfront hotelier (Pauer) getting to speak in whole sentences, Tarr's film has mere ciphers for its characters and offers a drama stripped to its barest bones. The result is, at least in formal terms, a highly impressive work with the exploratory precision of Tarr's trademark long takes, the haunting intensity of Mihály Vig's drone-based score, and the dignified minimalism of the performances all combining to create an austere aesthetic in keeping with the film's bleak themes.

If only there were a little more substance to reward those willing to endure the film's painfully slow accumulation of details and complete absence of human warmth. Of course no self-respecting fan of Tarr's earlier masterpieces Satantango (1994) and Werckmeister Harmonies (2000) will require much encouragement to see this, but if truth be told The Man From London is an altogether thinner affair and is unlikely to win the filmmaker any new devotees.

The protagonist Maloin is not so much an Everyman as a no-man, sketched so vaguely that any emotional or psychological engagement with him and his ethical quandary is next to impossible - and Swinton too is wasted here, inhabiting a role characterised with such spareness that few will feel Tarr has really earned the right to point his camera at her anguished visage for several unbroken minutes. That said, the inestimable gravity that Lénárt (think Max Von Sydow, only craggier) brings to Inspector Morrison ensures that every scene in which he appears is riveting.

Tarr's opening, self-conscious joke recurs near the film's end, when Inspector Morrison says to Brown's wife (Szirtes) "Please, sit down and be patient." Instead she gets ups and leaves - and no doubt some viewers, finding their own patience tested to the limits by Tarr's snail-like pacing, will already have done the same. Which is a pity, because The Man From London is, for all its failure to hold the interest, a work of immense technical accomplishment and chiaroscuro beauty from Hungary's foremost auteur - a filmmaker worth watching even when not at his best.

Cast & Connections

  • Actor: Gyula Pauer, István Lénárt, Oszkár Gáti, Tilda Swinton, Erika Bók, János Derzsi, Ági Szirtes, Miroslav Krobot, Kati Lázár
  • Director: Béla Tarr
  • Screen Writer: László Krasznahorkai, Béla Tarr
  • Writer (Book): Georges Simenon
  • Producer: Joachim Von Vietinghoff, Christoph Hahnheiser, Miriam Zachar, Gábor Téni, Paul Saadoun
  • Photographer: Fred Kelemen
  • Composer: Mihály Víg

In a nutshell

As slow-moving, oppressive and icy as a winter fog, Tarr's noirish drama of temptation and guilt beguiles but also, frankly, bores.

by Anton Bitel

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