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Breakneck at Tiffany's
A film review of BLOOD DIAMOND by Camus
 
  My wife has actually never been interested in diamonds, and we've been married for over 25 years. So, apparently I don't need to confer eternity upon the relationship.
 
Edward Zwick, director of Blood Diamond

 

The price of eternity... If diamonds cost this much, no one should be buying them. But then like the weary, white cynics of Zwick's worthy picture always seem to say (which explains quite a bit of the madness that can be Africa), "This is Africa..." Imagine the mass marketed western symbol of blossoming and endless romantic love is a crystal pulled out of the mud by enslaved workers, AK-47'ed into serving masters who would cut off an arm as casually as lopping off a branch. You don't have to imagine it. It's true. There are many things to adore about Africa and many adorable people (I know a few through experience) but when the fecal strikes the fan, it does so in that continent in ways only those expert in dark chaos could predict.

You know the kind of movies... You happily succumb to them. Like Lincoln biscuits, the snack that appears as appetising and attractive as a dry, emaciated Farley's Rusk but ends up in your mouth anyway with a shrug of sugar rewarded inevitability, Blood Diamond presents itself to you. This movie is solid, no question there. The leading actors do more than convince. The direction skips effectively by as you appreciate the craft and the way the story unfolds. The music and effects are all top notch, high budget Hollywood's three act narrative in bold and italics. Cutting edge CG (I imagine) recreates refugee hell in Sierra Leone at the time of the godawful civil war in 1999. The scenery is gorgeous, the artistic intent worthy and magnanimous ("...please boycott conflict-diamonds and save 200,000 kids being indoctrinated as soldiers just for starters.") and the seat in the cinema you're sitting on is comfortable. It's not a bad way to spend a Wednesday evening in a foreign country on a job involving a talking giraffe... But I just could not for the life of me - and several thousand poor fictional African lives - (but alas, with very real historical counterparts) bring myself to care enough.

It's a shocking admission about a movie that tries so hard to be earnest (and largely succeeds) but there we are. Or there I am. Perhaps the intimacy of Hotel Rwanda is better at highlighting plight than the big budget actioner. After all, under the surface this is a movie about greed. Greed is the blood pumping through its veins and if greed could be seen as a positive family binding trait, (a man is greedy for his family's safety) it's muscle tissue too. Bloody diamonds...

Leonardo DiCaprio is a superb character actor who accidentally said yes to James Cameron and is now regarded the world over - ten years after Titanic - as a pretty boy, lightweight mega-star with a speciality fan base in the East. Not only does he convince me he's a weary, hardbitten, Bogartesque bad boy, his 'seth efrican' eckcent (Rhodesian, no less) is faultless. That's one hell of a tall order. Actors who shy away from their perceived personas are called 'actors' (good for you, Daniel Radcliffe and even better for Helena Bonham-Carter who said about Radcliffe's naked turn in Equus; "He's got balls!"). Movie stars who act as character actors run the risk of ridicule and Oscar rarely comes knocking but DiCaprio knows he's an actor by choice, a movie star by accident and a bloody convincing bastard in Blood Diamond and – who'd have thunk it - a credible action hero to boot (and shoot at and punch).

In Africa, life is cheap. I say that with no heavy handed, western judgement or critical barb. I say it simply convinced by experience that a continent so large can hide many misdeeds and that its tribal societies are not governed easily or in most cases wisely. Scratch that; in most cases, not governed easily at all. Blair, Bush and Bono can bleat on about Africa's needs but while money legitimately raised is channelled into that vast continent, it also siphons off to men in power who abuse that power to a degree regarded as almost shameless. I was flying home from a well known African airport nine years ago. The army-clothed gentleman at customs, with a rifle and bucket of loose Tanzanian change in front of him, asked me a direct question: "Do you have any money?" I said "Uh, yes." He replied "Are you going home?" "Yes," I replied. The penny dropped. And dropped. And dropped. And dropped.

Margaret Thatcher would have been right at home in Africa. And dropped. There is a bare and poisonous undercurrent of "Every man for himself..." in Africa which is at best woefully bad and at worst? You don't want to know how bad things can get when uneducated, under-privileged, testosterone filled males get their hands on AK-47s and start to believe that they have a righteous cause which can only express itself in spent ammo clips, machete swings and discarded limbs. The human race is very difficult to love when wars break out and Africa, for all of its great natural beauty (written with not even a whiff of irony) is no exception.

Sierra Leone's government was distrusted by its populace for most of the 90s (since 1961, military coups kept the governments on their toes and one suspects they kept suspects without limbs) and after some over-the-border Liberian enthusiasm, the whole country was the fox that went to the dogs. Diamond mines, the greatest source of arms funding a rebel would ever know (irony alert considering that arms were routinely amputated), were initiated with slave labour kidnapped from peace-loving villages. And so here we find the actor who has managed to secure the 'noble African' roles all to himself, the remarkable and fiercely iconic Djimon Hounsou. Ever since his remarkably strong eyebrows kick started Spielberg's Amistad (you have to have a special face to kick start a movie and it doesn't surprise me that Hounsou has had modelling experience), I've had an eye on one of the strongest African faces I've ever seen. He is, as fisherman Solomon Vandy, utterly convincing. Looking the part, tick VG but Hounsou can act, can convince very effectively. His physicality is daunting and it's a tribute to DiCaprio's talent that he's never overshadowed by or seen to be weaker than the bigger man. Their brutal fight over their conflicting concerns brings up the dreaded 'k' word but in the context it's dramatically correct. And no, 'Kiss' is not the word we're alluding to here.

The plot is basically straightforward. Enslaved by the rebels to work at an illegal diamond mine and having been dragged away from his family at gunpoint, Solomon finds a diamond the size of a gobstopper and on an ersatz pooh break, buries it and with the sort of luck no one outside of the movies ever has, survives to be imprisoned after a government controlled army raid the mine. In jail –- as plot would have it –- is a white South African diamond smuggler (DiCaprio) who hears of this wondrous stone and as his people pay bail, he's already thinking that he and Solomon should become partners (ahem) so they both can benefit from the diamond. In the background, there's a venal western diamond industry anxious to maintain the high prices of precious stones by buying up all that are mined and keeping them in storage to keep the prices high. DiCaprio's Archer –- wise in the way that he knows how bureaucratic Africa and UN forces work - promises Vandy he will reunite him with his family. Little does anyone know that Vandy's beloved son has been taken in as a boy soldier for the rebels (this is why it is called 'infantry' apparently) by the villain of the piece, the man who ripped Vandy away from his family in the first place.

Phew.

The action is deftly handled and the obligatory faux-romance (does DiCaprio have to have a love interest? I guess it makes sense box office wise) is suitably entertaining. Jennifer Connelly is good but was that really the girl from Labyrinth (Kermit's not Pan's) and the same buxom figured actress-as-actress from Rocketeer? Body shapes are odd things to monitor but as a danger obsessed reporter, she convinces. Actors have to do no more than convince. Let's take a pause to consider the tear.

Those of you in the know (can you step in 'know' and smear it all over the carpet?), know that Jennifer Connelly had her performance 'enhanced' in post production. There are two sides to the argument. The first says that directors should trust their actors to give a performance that should not be tampered with in post and the second argument exists in the real world... Whether I agree or not that it was 'wrong' to slide a computer generated tear down Ms. Connelly's cheek at the requisite time is neither here nor there. Movies are comprised of creative decisions made at a very basic level. To make a movie you are beholden to the tools of your craft. If ACTOR A gives a great performance which you believe could become sublime by the additional help of a tear CG tracked onto a cheek –- it's a no brainer decision. You serve the story not the actor. Keanu Reeves didn't exactly object to his (unconvincing) digital doppleganger in the Matrix sequels. Everything is for the movie. Everything is for the emotional effect. I can understand the furore from actors and those that appreciate the actors' craft but then I see it from a directorial perspective and wonder what all the fuss is about.

This is what the fuss is about. Connelly is now regarded as a lesser actress (which is appallingly unfair) because the tear was added and not directed and coaxed out at the time. It is also a creative decision made to enforce the idea that visible tears are the accepted barometer of emotional worth. Which is bullshit of the loftiest order. My father died last year and I have not shed a tear. I loved my father. This act of non-lachrymosity does not, a heartless bastard make. Read L'Etranger by Albert Camus and judge whether society is best placed to judge any actions of the individual. But then an awful lot of people read The Sun and this is why democracy is not an airtight political system. Tears mean –- to The Sun reader –- emotional connection and emotional effect. But I think Connelly would have been just as convincing without the tear.

Blair, Bush... (Bono)... Democracy has wrought two god-driven do-gooders whose beliefs have essentially ended many thousands of lives. When is anyone in authority (Richard Dawkins, you need to be knighted and financed to spread your word) going to stand up and say:

    1. Who told you about Jesus/Allah?
    2. Could they have been wrong?
    3. Could they have been told by their parents?
    4. Could those parents have been wrong?

How I got from diamonds to a frank dismissal of organised religion is beyond me. But then, passions will out. Blood Diamond is a solid if not entirely affecting work. If it highlights anything effectively enough to make a difference then all hail to Zwick and company. But in the end it's a Hollywood movie about Africa and no one (in the mainstream) yet has managed to make a movie that feels real. Africa will always be the place where the lions roam and injustice is framed in a liberal frame of an "If only they lived by western principles" coda. Hey, this is Africa...

Blood Diamond

USA 2006
143 mins
director
Edward Zwick
producers
Gillian Gorfil
Marshall Herskovitz
Graham King
Darrell Roodt
Paula Weinstein
Edward Zwick
screenplay
Charles Leavitt
story
Charles Leavitt
C. Gaby Mitchell
cinematography
Eduardo Serra
editor
Steven Rosenblum
music
James Newton Howard
production design
Dan Weil
starring
Leonardo DiCaprio
Djimon Hounsou
Jennifer Connelly
Kagiso Kuypers
Benu Mabhena
review posted
6 March 2006

See all of Camus's reviews