Thursday, 21 July 2016

Review of The Legend of Tarzan

The latest of iteration of Edgar Rice Borrough's "Tarzan" legend is by turns tedious, monotonous, sluggish, turgid and overwhelmingly grey, both in tone and production design. And that's just before you get to the post-colonial minefield the film tries to address at the same time. It tries to be a sweeping adventure story and an exploration of Saidian otherness at once and doesn't just fail, but falls completely flat. It's also the first film where the usual splendid Christoph Waltz seems to be spinning his wheels; now that is scary.

This differs from the usual Tarzan storytelling in that it occurs long after Tarzan, going by Lord Greystroke (Alexander Skarsgard, not hiding his accent or his abs), has been adopted by the West as a savage boy, and actually sees him making the return from London back to his home in the Congo, with his wife Jane. What's interesting is the way this is set up; the film initially and briefly purports to be an exploration of his sense of belonging in the two places Tarzan has come to know, and his reluctance to return to where he was raised amongst apes. The film even threatens to come across as some kind of Dark Knight Rises by way of Joseph Conrad, for a time, with the reformed hero struggling to accept his prior identity as lord of the jungle, and all that.

I say "threatens" because the film never realises these grand visions, and settles for a number of uninspired flashbacks and moody shots of Skarsgard frowning into the middle distance as an exploration of the central character's mental state. The plot undergoes similar burnout as it starts out with Christoph Waltz (playing Leon Rom) under orders from King Leopold to get some diamonds from the natives to help fund Leopold's dominance. The leader, Mbonga, agrees, but only on the condition that Tarzan be bought to him (why this is is revealed partially in multiple flashbacks).

Tarzan, despite the goading of the prime minister (Jim Broadbent, doing his thing), is reluctant, until Samuel L Jackson as an American aide convinces him by warning him of some kind of slave trade. Then we meet Jane (Margot Robbie), who we find out had a failed pregnancy in one of the clumsiest bits of expository dialogue I've seen.

And so on and so on, but not really, because by the time Tarzan is in the jungle it feels like hours have passed, and nothing feels at stake. Even his abs, gazed upon at length, do nothing to save it.

This feeling of detachment, that nobody involved really feels involved, is what permeates the film, from the script to the score to the costumes and sinks it before Tarzan has even arrived back with his natives. I want to say it's a shame, but there's something old fashioned about Burrough's stories, and not in a good way; the whole white saviour narrative thing has always been contentious as far back as "Heart of Darkness", but given the current political climate in particular this film just feels unnecessary. (I hate to get political, but the film has allusions to politics, so I might as well address them).

It's clearly just muddled and unwilling to stick to any particular guns one way or another. The closest the film gets to a postcolonial statement is the recurring motif of Rom strangling various natives with his treasured crucifix, dangling from his hand at all times; a metaphor on whites that I won't spell out for you. There are occasional attempts at portraying the natives as a more than one-dimensional community, and it succeeds briefly, until it resorts to the old tropes (the only named native spends a good half hour of the film mute and in a cage).

But this political element is secondary; if the film had been exciting in any capacity, I could have forgiven it as problematic popcorn fodder, but it simply wasn't. The usually reliable David Yates, responsible for the most emotionally resonant Harry Potter films, fails to deliver, never rising above a sense of studio nonchalance and just getting it in on time and under budget. You know you've got a muddle on your hands when the climactic battle needs expository dialogue referring to a brief flashback an hour earlier in the film to remind you what's actually at stake.

And even with that, you still feel like nothing's at stake. By the time the hour has passed and we actually get to see some vine-swinging, I had long since checked out.

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