“THE DECEIVERS” (1988) Review

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“THE DECEIVERS” (1988) Review

I have heard of British writer John Masters ever since I saw “BHOWANI JUNCTION”, the 1956 adaptation of one his novels, on television years ago. Mind you, I did not love the film. But it did ignite an interest in a few of Masters’ stories – including his 1952 novel, “The Deceivers”

Not long after I saw “BHOWANI JUNCTION” on television, film producers Ismail Merchant and James Ivory made their own adaptation of Masters’ 1952 novel. Released in 1988 and directed by Nicholas Meyer, “THE DECEIVERS” told the story of Englishman William Savage, an officer with the British East Indian Company in 1825, who stumbles across the murderous activities of an organized gang of assassins and robbers called Thuggees, who worship the goddess Kali. Frustrated by his commanding officer/father-in-law’s refusal to investigate further, Captain Savage “recruits” a captured Thug named Hussein to help him infiltrate one of the gangs in order to expose the organization. Despite the risk of exposure and vengeance, Captain Savage finds himself undergoing a psychological transformation when he not only becomes close to his new companions, but also begins to succumb to the cult’s bloodlust and murderous behavior.

If one is expecting “THE DECEIVERS” to be one of those costume dramas or adventures on the epic scale, one is bound to be face with disappointment. In fact, I suspect that most critics back in 1988 were very disappointed with the movie’s small scale. Despite some large-scale action, a little horror and historical drama; “THE DECEIVERS” struck me as small-scale period drama and character study of an early 19th century man whose worldview would change in ways he had not imagined. At the beginning of the film, William Savage is not a highly regarded officer with the East Indian Company. Although he speaks several Indian dialects fluently, is dedicated to his duties as magistrate of his district and is friendly with the local aristocrat; his new father-in-law, Colonel Wilson, does not seem particularly impressed by him, especially since he refuses to succumb to the Company’s corruption by taxing the local inhabitants of nearly every rupee they possess. In the company of his father-in-law and other officers within the East Indian Company – including his friend George Anglesmith – Captain Savage seemed like the odd man out or the black sheep. But in the company of those Indian citizens inside his district and the sepoys (Indian soliders) under his command, he is very much the Imperial Englishman. This attitude is especially apparent following his discovery of the Thugs’ activities and their victims. He even go so far as to regard himself redeeming a Thug he and his men had earlier captured – a man named Hussein.

But when his father-in-law, Colonel Wilson, refuses to initiate any further investigations into the Thuggees; Captain Savage decides to take matters into his own hands and infiltrate one of their bands. He disguises himself as a native of Northern India and asks Hussein to help him infiltrate the latter’s own band of robbers. Although Savage eventually succeeds in his mission, his journey with the Thug band nearly tears apart his self-esteem as an Englishman and a civilized man. One of the movie’s more interesting scenes featured Savage, Hussein and the other Thugs engaged in a religious ceremony in which they pay homage to the goddess Kali. During this ceremony, Savage notices that the group’s priest uses an instrument similar to the thurible used during his wedding ceremony. He also discovers that underneath his so-called “civilized” English demeanor, he was capable of a great deal of blood lust and violence . . . including deliberate and cold-blooded murder. As I had earlier stated, the film ended on a triumphant note for Savage’s professional career. The East Indian Company appoints Savage as their main commissioner on the suppression of the Thuggee cult throughout the subcontinent. But despite this career high note, Savage’s psyche and self-esteem as an Englishman in India has been greatly shaken by his experiences with the Thug band.

For me, Savage’s emotional journey into darkness is probably the highlight of “THE DECEIVERS”. And this is due not only to the willingness of Michael Hirst’s screenplay and Pierce Brosnan’s superb performance to explore the darker aspects of Savage’s psyche. It is a pity that the movie ended up as a critical and box office failure. Personally, I feel that“THE DECEIVERS” was a lot better than most it is generally regarded. In many ways, it went against the grain of the typical British Empire action film. Perhaps it is not really an action film . . . and many critics and moviegoers could not accept this. Like I said, it is a pity that many were not willing to accept this aspect of “THE DECEIVERS”. Not only did I find it to be the movie’s most interesting aspect, but I also found it unusual for a movie set in pre-20th century British India.

Mind you, “THE DECEIVERS” is not perfect. I found the movie’s finale, which featured a pitched battle between Company soldiers led by Colonel Wilson and many Thugs to be a rushed affair. Before Nicholas Meyer could further delve into it, he switches his focus solely upon the wounded Savage’s attempt to evade a vengeful Feringea, leader of the Thuggee band with whom he had been following. I was also somewhat disappointed by the story’s handling of the George Anglesmith character. David Robb did an excellent job in his portrayal of the morally corrupt Anglesmith, who is also jealous of Savage’s recent marriage to Sarah Wilson. But the script did very little justice to his character, aside from a surprising revelation regarding his knowledge of the Thugs. There has also been a good deal of criticism directed toward the film’s handling of a Sati (Suttee) situation regarding the wife of a local weaver, who had disappeared, whose identity Savage had used to infiltrate Hussein’s Thug band. Savage’s use of Gopal the Weaver’s identity ended up having far reaching circumstances for the latter’s wife . . . circumstances that repelled a good deal of critics and moviegoers.

I have already commented on the excellent performances of both Pierce Brosnan and David Robb. I might as well touch upon the film’s other performances. Saeed Jaffrey was superb as the redeemed Hussein, who becomes disturbed by Savage’s increasing embrace of his darker psyche. Shashi Kapoor gave a warm, yet complex performance as Chandra Singh, the aristocrat who befriends Savage. Helena Michell gave solid support as Savage’s loyal and passionate new wife. Her father, Keith Michell, gave an intense performance as Colonel Wilson . . . even if there were times I found it a bit hammy. Another intense performance came Tariq Yunus, who portrayed the leader of Savage’s Thug band, Feringea. Fortunately, he managed to restrain the ham.

Visually, “THE DECEIVERS” is a gorgeous movie to behold. Most of the movie was filmed around Jaipur, India. Walter Lassally’s photography did a beautiful job in capturing the natural beauty of Jaipur’s local terrain. What made this particular appealing to me was the fact that a good deal of the movie was set in parts of India not occupied or inhabited by the British. I cannot say that “THE DECEIVERS” revealed the “true” Indian of the mid-1820s. But I found it interesting to view an India not populated by British cantonments or inhabitants. But the movie’s visual of the Indian countryside was not the only thing I found appealing. I also enjoyed the costumes designed by Academy Award winner Jenny Beavan and John Bright. The pair did an excellent job in recapturing the period fashions for both the British and Indian characters of the period.

I suppose there is nothing I can say to convince anyone that “THE DECEIVERS” is an interesting movie. It went against the grain of what many considered an enjoyable movie about 19th century British India. The movie seemed too focused on Savage’s internal psyche and less on any real action. But I enjoyed it, despite its dark topic (or because of it) and the lack of epic scope, I managed to enjoy “THE DECEIVERS”, thanks to Nicholas Meyer’s direction and a first-rate cast led by Pierce Brosnan.

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