Tuesday 18 July 2017

Why Haven't You Seen...? Closet Land (1991)

Posted by Sam Inglis

What's it all about? 

In an unnamed country under a totalitarian government a children's writer (Madeline Stowe) is questioned, eventually under torture, by an interrogator (Alan Rickman) who believes her as yet unpublished book Closet Land is intended as propaganda against the government.

Why haven't you seen it? 

Because even if you've heard of it, it's not easy to find. I first saw it on TV in the late 90s. I never saw a VHS copy, which leads me to believe they were at best relatively rare and there has been no English language DVD release. The subject matter may also be a sticking point for some, this isn't an early entry in the 'torture porn' sub genre of horror, but it is a film about torture, about cruelty. That probably goes some way to explaining why this film has never gained a mass audience.

Why should you see it? 

Closet Land is one of those films I wish wasn't relevant any more. It's about a totalitarian government cracking down on citizens it believes to be seditious, even in minor or unproven ways, such as their interpretation of a book. Unfortunately it still feels very urgent, very topical. This does, however, work to the films advantage, ratcheting up its already deeply disturbing nature because there are many elements, especially in the first and third acts, that feel highly credible.

Closet Land should have come to greater notice last year, with the sad and premature passing of Alan Rickman. Writer/director Radha Bharadwaj makes highly effective use of Rickman's ability to drip menace from every pore, while also seeming totally calm and even friendly. His character, known only as the Interrogator, seems a reasonable man to begin with. At the outset he accepts Stowe's character's (known only as the Victim) protestations that she has been wrongfully arrested and tells her she can leave. She comes back when he dangles a carrot; an official letter of apology from the Government, and it is from there that the mind games truly begin to ramp up. The Interrogator is both good cop and bad cop, but portrays himself as unwilling to be the latter. He drafts in another man with, the Victim says, a voice “like a choked gutter” to deliver some of the more serious threats. This is, of course, also the Interrogator, as is a 'witness' who speaks against the Victim. Rickman is terrifying in the role; the embodiment of the banality and bureaucracy of evil, but also of the dangers of indoctrination. In the second and third acts he seems to have to remind himself of that indoctrination, even as he is attempting it on the Victim, but of course that may all be another ruse. That, like many questions here, goes unanswered.

It has always seemed to me that Madeline Stowe never quite got her due as an actress. This ranks with the likes of Short Cuts and Twelve Monkeys among her best work. Stowe's character may be called Victim, but Stowe resists the temptation to define her by that designation. For me the character is defined by her strength, her resolve, and by her mantra “You can break my body but you can't break my mind”. Closet Land refers both to her book and to a place she used to retreat, to escape and, though it doesn't come from a good place, to find that strength that allows her to resist the Interrogator. We see glimpses of Closet Land coming to life through brief animated sequences that capture a look I recognise from the picture books I had read to me as a kid. There is, inevitably, a lot of the film that consists of the characters sitting in chairs and talking, but thanks to Rickman and Stowe's performances and the intensity of the dynamic between them, these are easily Closet Land's most gripping moments.

There is one thing in these performances that I've not quite worked out: Alan Rickman has one of the most distinctive voices in cinema, and he doesn't disguise it very much when the Interrogator is playing other characters, and does so progressively less as this ruse goes on. The fact that the Victim doesn't recognise these voices as the same is surprising, but there's something in Rickman's performance, just a little look of surprise, that makes me wonder whether this is the whole story. Again, it's these details that help keep the film as tense as it is.

This is a film defined by its dialogue and a battle of wills between two characters, set almost entirely in a single room, it would have been easy to dress the set as plainly as possible; making it stark and cold. Bharadwaj and production and costume designer Eiko Ishioka take a different approach. The set is large, with marble walls, columns and an intricate 3D effect design on the floor. The table between the Interrogator and the Victim is an inverted pyramid, hiding drawers and restraints. It has the feeling of a place that has stood for a long time before being adapted for this purpose and appears so cold that you can almost feel it. Cinematographer Bill Pope, who went on to the likes of The Matrix and Sam Raimi's Spider-Man sequels, also adds to this chilly feel.

Closet Land isn't perfect. At times the second act gets a bit overblown, with a little scenery chewing by Rickman, but when it's still and quiet it's extremely disturbing, with an ever present undertone of threat and a sense that whatever happens in this room, things are likely infinitely worse, probably for both characters, once the doors open. I had only seen Closet Land once before rewatching it for this piece, but for almost twenty years it had stuck with me. Whether or not you like this film, I suspect you'll find the same.

How can you see it? 

The VHS is still available through Amazon. The only DVD release I can find is Spanish and appears to be long out of print and unavailable. This said, I have been in contact with writer/director Radha Bharadwaj and she has given me permission to point you to where you can see the film on YouTube. You'll find the link below.

Watch Closet Land: http://ow.ly/KJgl30dEW8N

Follow Sam on Twitter: http://twitter.com/24FPSUK

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