- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 9, 2005

Kathy Bates is probably not the actress Americans would immediately envision as a Spanish noblewoman residing in colonial Lima, Peru, in the early 18th century. Given her corpulence, she is pretty certain to look a hoot if required to step onto a primitive rope bridge that is famously destined to collapse, plunging her character and four others into a deep river gorge.

Mary McGuckian, an Irish filmmaker whose credits remain obscure in the United States, has been sufficiently crackpot to deploy the estimable Miss Bates in this reckless fashion in “The Bridge of San Luis Rey,” a remake of Thornton Wilder’s novella, the Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction in 1928.

Enhanced to some extent by scenic exteriors and palatial interiors in Spain, the movie seems to have been a stealth prestige production. I wasn’t aware of its existence a week ago, and it might be more gallant to draw the merciful veil, but for the fact that the company includes five Academy Award winners — Miss Bates, Robert De Niro, F. Murray Abraham, production designer Gil Parrondo and costume designer Yvonne Blake.

Their participation was motivated presumably by respect for Mr. Wilder’s eloquent and haunting reflections on fate, estrangement and the eternal mysteries — and perhaps by the allure of dressing up splendidly while based in Malaga for the better part of a summer.

Three cast members do project the appropriate temperaments for the material: Gabriel Byrne as the investigative Franciscan, Brother Juniper, who makes a study of the five victims on the bridge in hopes of clarifying divine providence to perplexed believers; Geraldine Chaplin as the abbess, Madre Maria del Pilar, supervisor of a charitable convent in Lima; and Adriana Dominguez as the pious orphan Pepita, raised at the convent before becoming a companion to Miss Bates’ lonely Dona Maria, Marquesa de Montemayor.

For the remainder of the cast, this muddled re-enactment of a semi-classic proves a look-out-below fiasco. Miss McGuckian makes a heavy-handed botch of many episodes and an absent-minded hash of others. Mr. Wilder’s compact and methodical flashbacks, which at their most effective vividly evoke Spanish colonial society, are splintered into a sprawling continuity that seems to have few dramatic priorities. The McGuckian scenario accumulates slack and confusion in place of momentum.

Miss Bates is the dottiest example of miscasting, but she’s not alone. Harvey Keitel, zestless as the theatrical mentor called Uncle Pio, never looks nor sounds at ease with the period. Mr. Abraham as the viceroy and Mr. De Niro as the archbishop distinguish themselves only by hamming it up in regal raiment.

Miss McGuckian sews confusion at some points by taking things in the book literally. For example, the viceroy is the most privileged lover of a celebrated actress, Camila Perichole (the flailing Pilar Lopez de Ayala, who needs direction in the worst way). He is uncertain about rivals but suspects one is an actor and another a matador. It amuses Miss McGuckian to cast the same actor as both suspects. Unless you’ve built up a reserve of humorous credit with spectators, this is the kind of gag that makes you an eminently replaceable director.


TITLE: “The Bridge of San Luis Rey”

RATING: PG (Ominous episodes and sexual allusions; fleeting violence and gruesome illustrative details)

CREDITS: Directed by Mary McGuckian. Screenplay by Miss McGuckian, based on the novel by Thornton Wilder. Cinematography by Javier Aguirresarobe. Production design by Gil Parrondo. Costume design by Yvonne Blake. Music by Lalo Schifrin.

RUNNING TIME: 120 minutes

WEB SITE: www.finelinefeatures.com


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