If the above title intrigues you enough, then see this film. Otherwise stay clear. Very, very clear of it (you will hate it). Gorgeous black & white cinematography and practically nothing else other than a heavy atmosphere. No action. Very little dialogue and just a little more conventional than this directors' other works. Enjoy. Or not. I did.
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I'd had my eye on this film for a couple years: being an anglophile I was drawn by the word 'London'. As it transpires, there is nothing 'London' about this film other than the fact that someone from London is involved at one point. This is one of those dark and quiet films that manage to keep your attention thanks to the fact that you're not quite sure what is going on. Did I like it? Yes...but more because it is so dedicated to being what it is. And it's 'foreign'. Would I watch it again? Hmmm... That said it was satisfying viewing. But I do wish it had been set in London.
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15 of 16 people found the following review helpful
One day, Bela Tarr will make a great noir. This is not it.March 16 2010
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The Man from London (Bela Tarr and Agnes Hranitzky, 2007)
Every director has a weakness. Bela Tarr's has always been plot. His best movies (and the best movies of Bela Tarr, one of the best directors working today, are some of the best movies of all time) are those where plot is almost a non-consideration, where he focuses on the characters and their reactions to seemingly mundane situations. Both Satantango and Werckmeister Harmonies fall into this category. On the other hand, we have Tarr's excursions into the world of the crime film, Karozhat and The Man from London. While they are both still worth watching, neither approaches the brilliance of the two aforementioned; as it so often does, plot gets in the way.
Adapted by longtime Tarr collaborator Laszlo Krasznahorkai from a novel by Georges Simenon, The Man from London opens with one of those wonderful scenes that Tarr inherited by way of Tarkovsky. It runs fully fifteen minutes, and while the camera does move to take in different parts of the scene, it is for the most part stationary. If you're enough of a Tarr fan to have grokked the whole "endless scene" thing, you might not even notice that there is action. But there is. Maloin (The Country Teacher's Miroslav Krobot) is the harbormaster in a nameless seaside town in France. (I seem to recall someone saying this is Paris, but please. This is Tarr's nameless rural Hungarian town transported to France.) One night, he's watching people disembarking as usual, going through customs, when one passenger, Brown (Janos Derszi, returning from Werckmeister Harmonies), doesn't get on the train as most do. Instead, he goes around the other side of the boat and waits in the darkness. Another man, Teddy, throws a case off the side of the ship before disembarking himself, and Brown retrieves it. We pan over to the train, which slowly pulls out of the station. (In the way these things tend to feed off one another, this shot made me wonder if Tarr had seen Merhige's Shadow of the Vampire, with the opening credits dissolving into the long, slow shot of the train's wheels.) We head back over, and we find Brown and Teddy struggling over the case. Brown pushes Teddy into the water. Teddy drowns, taking the case with him. Brown walks away. And then comes scene two, where Maloin sets the events of the rest of the film in motion by going out and retrieving the case, which turns out to be full of money. He hides it, intending to get his wife Camelia (Tilda Swinton) and daughter Henriette (Erika Bok, whose role in Satantango will likely never be forgotten by anyone who's seen that film) out of their ramshackle flat, but a monkeywrench is thrown into the works when Morrison (A Long Weekend in Pest and Buda's Istvan Lenart), the Man from London, appears looking for the case. He knows immediately that Brown took it, and goes as far as bringing Brown's wife (Hungarian Beauty's Agi Szirtes) in to help look for him. All the while, Maloin goes on about his business, playing chess with the local bar owner (Gyula Pauer, another returnee from Werckmeister Harmonies) and sitting in his tower, drinking vodka and watching the ships.
My wife is not a Bela Tarr fan, and so when we talked about the movie afterwards, I got a fresh perspective. She brought some things to the fore that I'd always noticed, but kind of shuffled to the back of my mind. Most notably that everyone in Bela Tarr's movies ranges from the aggressively plain to the monstrously ugly. I wouldn't go so far as to call Tarr's movies cinema verite--they are far too composed for that--but it has always struck me that Tarr's lack of movie-star-looking folk is one of the hallmarks he uses to tell us that while his movies are obviously choreographed, there's more of reality to them than there is to anything turned out by Holly/Bolly/Nollywood and their imitators. Similarly those long, long shots, which are often long to the point of uncomfortability; it's another way of looking at Maloin playing chess while Morrison is interrogating Brown in the other room. It's a way of saying "life goes on." And it does.
One thing that really impressed me about this, and the thing that makes me think that Tarr really could turn in a fine crime film at some point, is the paradox that the long shots, which are often so full of nothing, fill the movie with a tension that is at times well nigh unbearable. There's so much nothing going on at points in this movie that you know there's a shoe about to drop. That it never does (I have often said that Tarr's films usually turn around one shocking piece of violence; I don't think it's a spoiler to say that in the case of The Man from London, it's the initial fight between Brown and Teddy, which is mirrored later when Maloin is attempting to extricate Henriette from her job) just keeps the tension ramping up. I have no idea how that works, and it's something that, of all the long-shot directors, Tarr does best. Maloin undresses and goes to bed, and Camelia comes in and closes the shutters in the bedroom. It's black. And it stays black for about a minute. You know something is going to happen. And you keep knowing it, even as nothing does. It makes no sense, but it works.
And forgive me for going on and on about this movie, especially when I'm giving it a middling rating, but talking to my wife about it afterwards got me going about the brilliance that is Bela Tarr. Every shot means something. Every decision means something. And it's all lovely, even the ugly bits. I adore the film stock he uses, that washed-out black-and-white stuff probably left over from the fifties that looks almost silver when projected. I love the way he pans off to someone who has no bearing whatsoever on the story so we can watch him eat bread and soup for two minutes. (What does it mean? Once again, that life goes on.) I even love the fact that this movie was originally filmed in Hungarian (and one wonders whether Swinton learned Hungarian, or whether she did her dialogue in English), dubbed into French on Tarr's orders, and then subtitled into English. I love Tilda Swinton in this movie, who gives the same odd disconnect that Lars Rudolph (well-known to American audiences from Lola Rennt) did in Werckmeister Harmonies; you see all these Hungarian players in Tarr films, people that we in the Western world wouldn't know unless we're far deeper into Eastern European film than most American viewers are capable of getting, and then all the sudden--Tilda Swinton! A recognizable face in a Bela Tarr movie? It makes no sense, and that makes it all the more enjoyable. (And what's more, a recognizable face in a minor role? And playing, if the film really has one, the bad guy? It's delicious casting.)
David Thomson, in his Werckmeister Harmonies entry in Have You Seen...?, closes with a paragraph about how Tarr's films look to the universal. I disagree with that assessment; Tarr's movies, be they the plotless wonders that are destined for classic status or the relatively minor crime films, have always struck me as intensely personal, intimate pictures. They resonate because even if you've never been to Hungary or France, you've walked these streets, talked to these ugly people (or made fun of them behind their backs), watched them in the drudgery of their work. Maybe that's what Thomson's on about; the universality of the personal, or some such nonsense. In any case, every Bela Tarr film I've seen feels like he made it just for me. And just for you. And just for etc.
The Man from London is not by any means Tarr's best work. Start with Werckmeister Harmonies. I'd tell you to start with Satantango, but that is a big, big investment for a first exposure. Go to that one second. And then watch The Man from London and Karozhat (which was recently released as a double-feature DVD with Werckmeister). I think they'll make a bit more sense once you've got a solid footing in the absurd, and yet utterly real, universe that Bela Tarr inhabits. ***
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
With taste of the Dostoievski's fatality!Feb. 13 2010
Hiram Gomez Pardo
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The elusive frontier between duty and morality, a single man is witness of a murder. What's wrong and what's right into a world in which no one is about suspicion?
Bela Tarr has made an intimate and absorbing mystery tale composed by frames of single beauty, hovered by a polite darkness and peaceful frames.
Based on a George Simenon' s play. Good performances of all the cast are rewarding enough, despite of the fact the unfinished length of certain sequences.
Nominated for Cannes Film Festival as Best picture in that year.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
A great, underrated film by Bela TarrSept. 24 2011
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The Man From London is honestly one of my favorite efforts from Bela Tarr, easily on my short list of great directors. It's been savaged by fans and critics alike, mostly for two reasons. First, it's the first Tarr film to be exposed to a wide audience upon release. Finally his buzz had reached the point where this film's premiere was an actual event, so a lot more people who weren't Tarr fanatics saw it and slammed it. Let's face it, he's one of the most divisive directors of all time, and 90% of the general audience would probably walk out of any of his films 5 minutes in.
The second problem is that it's a really hard film to pin down, even if you are a Tarr lover. The Man From London feels far more consciously experimental than his previous work. Liberated from his native setting of Hungary, he creates a more manufactured sort of reality for his characters. Atmospherics are piled on, almost like the whole movie takes place in some moody landscape painting. My suspicion is that this put his fans off guard from the get go, and resulted in a lower reception. But that's really what sets it apart in my mind. The mood is so incredibly thick that you can almost literally reach out and cut the fog with a knife while watching. The usual Tarr trademarks are here (endless 10 minute takes, black and white photography, eternally miserable characters), but little touches make this effort surprisingly suspenseful. Several scenes get you used to watching a whole lot of nothing, so when a brawl breaks out in the distance it's a shock to the system. One crucial event occurs behind closed doors. Several minutes are spent regarding that door, and my breath was held for practically all of them.
Like most films, this one isn't perfect. One scene involves Maloin buying clothes from two fast-talking tailors whose comic relief is as out of place as an Adam Sandler cameo. It's the one moment where the film's mood is totally broken, and it takes a minute or two to get back into the swing of things. Also, a few scenes in the bar seem to contain a cameo from the drunks in Satantango, which is just a bit odd (this might be unintentional, since Tarr uses the same actors to play similar parts in all of this movies). Still, this movie has lived in my memories ever since I first watched it. The opening slow, slow, sloooooooow pan up the front of a ship sets the tone, and by the end of it, I had surrendered to Tarr's mastery. Two hours later, I was a happy man.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
Rhythmic existence.April 1 2013
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It was a tedious and unfulfilling day. I was preparing to go to bed, reading Amazon reviews in preparation for another Tarr film I'm to watch ('Almanac of Fall') when I learned disappointedly that 'Man from London' only received a one-star rating from its reviewers. I couldn't turn away from this injustice, a small but salient tragedy that'd occlude a peaceful descent into sleep like a pea under the mattress. For 'Man from London' as I was for 'Shirin', the only film review on my profile so far, I will be the righter of wrongs and present a perspective whose unbalanced admiration will serve as the counterweight to the pessimistic reality of audience quality (the problem of perfect needs and wants).
The plot is simple. A man whose name I can't remember (Miroslav Krobot) finds a suitcase full of money tossed into the harbour after observing a criminal transaction gone wrong, watching from his observation post in the dock he works at. This money provides the financial freedom necessary to elevate his daughter's (Erika Bók) miserable condition in life. His wife (Tilda Swinton) doesn't know about the money but is upset by the changes it engenders. They all live in a seemingly-modern town simmering with feudalist, medieval tendencies like the daughter's employment with the shopkeeper.
I don't believe that describing the twists and turns of the plot in detail spoils the viewing of a film, because if the movie was formed properly then the experience of watching it will be self-sufficient, and if the movie depended on those twists to entertain, it was formed improperly and not worth watching anyway. That is why some are disposable, and some indispensable. However, I don't know which of these camps You, the two or three people reading this review, belong to, so I won't force my ideology on you.
Tarr's films exist as if they were transported into our modern world from a place and time, mid-century Europe, not distant but unreachable. His atypical movies aren't representative of that, or any, time and place, but it would be reasonable for them to have been conceived then and not now. The black and white cinematography and the dubbing are the best examples. The dubbing has been called out for being bad, but though the lips of the actors, moving in several different languages, have little to do with what is being spoken, the voice acting is so impressive and authoritative that the on-screen performers seemed to be puppeteers in reverse, showing us the sleight-of-hand that produced the dialogue. (Although, Tilda Swinton's dubbing sounded much like Tilda Swinton, who as part of her talent is capable of non-English roles.)
Now, onto the most important part. This is a very paced, measured film. Its pace is a quandary: the discerning viewer won't see any fat that needs trimming, the careless masses will lament the lack of meat in this meal. The film is music that has been interpreted with images, just as Bach can be played on a harpsichord or a piano. Everything is alive with the rhythm of existence, every film grain an instrument: the back and forth sway of the camera watching the boat disembark, the mechanical gait of the people boarding the train, the frantic cadence of the fur traders' sales pitch and the graceful speech of the English detective. The soundtrack of the film consists of a short, oppressive and oft-repeated phrase of music, which has its own rhythm but has been debased into the mere heartbeat of the film. To this end, the filmmaker leaves out much of the trite and conventional exposition present in other crime films, the raison d'être, to bring us more of the être. Life is complex, like music, more so than film plots or melodies, and there are no easy solutions. In fact, existence is the benchmark of complexity, and this movie brought me closer to the perigee of art and reality than I had ever been before.
A perfect film. On a grading scale, an A, an unforgettable, all-time favorite of deep significance, capable and worthy of being rewatched. Also, apologize for the pretentiousness of my review, which is unforgivable.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
Not a masterpiece, but still worth watching a few times...Jan. 23 2010
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This is probably what could be described as a minor Tarr film, but a minor Tarr film stands above the major films of most modern directors. This film isn't as brooding or as magisterial as Satantango or Werckmeister Harmonies, but it's still worth watching and has some truly amazing scenes within its walls.
It's based on a Georges Simeon novel, and while the novel and plot are pretty standard, the vision that Tarr brings to this film makes it what it is. The opening shot lasts nearly 12 minutes, giving this film a brilliant dirge like atmosphere throughout. The black and white photography is wonderous. There are shots in this film that are so precise and exacting you marvel at Tarr's artistry (and those of his crew). The performances are also first rate in this film. There is one tremendous scene where the police inspector informs a woman that her husband is involved with nefarious people, and Tarr brilliantly leaves the camera on her face while the inspector is talking. The woman's eyes do all the acting, and it's one of the best scenes in any of Tarr's work. Several Tarr regulars (if you can call them that, as Tarr isn't very prolific) appear, and there are some humourous scenes in the film as well. Tarr often gets spoken of in deeply solemn tones (like Tarkovsky and Bresson), but there is humour in every film he's done.
The Man from London isn't Tarr's best, but anyone who has enjoyed his work should see it regardless. See it though in the original Hungarian soundtrack. There is a theatrical version going around that's been dubbed into English and French, and it's not that good. It's not a horrible retro flashback to some of the atrocious dubbing like there used to be, but in this day and age, arthouse audiences expect the original language with subtitles, even if some of the actors/actresses are dubbed into that language (Tilda Swinton is dubbed into Hungarian in the original version, for example). Regardless, Tarr's The Man from London is a very good film. Not his greatest, but still worth sitting through.