Friday, January 05, 2007

Films of Michael Caine #42: The Honorary Consul

US title: Beyond the LimitCast: Michael Caine (Charley Fortnum), Richard Gere (Dr Plarr), Bob Hoskins (Colonel Perez), Elpidia Carrilo (Clara), Joaquim De Almeida (Leon), A Martinez (Aquino), Stephanie Cotsirilos (Marta), Domingo Ambriz (Diego), Eric Valdez (Pablo), Nicolas Jasso (Miguel), Geoffrey Maguire (British Ambassador), Leonard Maguire (Dr Humphries).

Crew: John Mackenzie (director), Norma Heyman (producer), Christopher Hampton (writer), Stanley Myers (music), Phil Meheux (cinematography), Stuart Baird (editor), Allan Cameron (production designer).

Synopsis: Dr Eduardo Plarr moves to a city in Northern Argentina, close to the Paraguayan border. He encounters an alcoholic called Charlie Fortnum, Britain’s honorary consul to the region. Fortnum takes Plarr to a local brothel where a beautiful girl catches the doctor’s eye. Plarr’s father went missing in Paraguay two years earlier. The doctor asks for help finding his father from the local police chief, Perez. Plarr is approached by Leon, an old friend from Paraguay. He claims a man called Aquino has news of Plarr’s father. The doctor returns to the brothel but the beautiful girl is gone. Fortnum asks Plarr to examine his wife, Clara. The doctor is surprised to discover she is the girl from the brothel. Plarr and Clara have an affair and she becomes pregnant with his child. Aquino and Leon tell Plarr his father is a prisoner in Paraguay.

The pair enlist the doctor’s aid to abduct the visiting American ambassador. But Leon’s men snatch Fortnum by mistake. Perez reveals that Plarr’s father was shot dead trying to escape a year ago. Plarr visits Leon and the other revolutionaries in the tin shack where they are holding Fortnum hostage. Leon admits lying to secure the doctor’s help. The kidnappers won’t let Plarr leave. Leon says the doctor is jealous of Fortnum’s ability to love. Fortnum overhears Plarr brags that the unborn baby is his. The security forces surround the shack and kill one of the revolutionaries. When Plarr goes outside, he is shot too. The kidnappers are all killed. Perez has Plarr executed. Afterwards, Fortnum and Clara are reconciled. The consul says they will call the baby Eduardo, if it’s a boy…


Adapting the novels of Graham Greene has long proven a challenge for filmmakers. Acclaimed director Joseph L Mankiewicz provoked the author’s ire with a version of The Quiet American in 1957 that changed the story into an anti-Communist tale. The Honorary Consul was first published in 1973, but nearly a decade elapsed before a cinema adaptation of the book began shooting. Producer Norma Heyman acquired the film rights and hired playwright Christopher Hampton to adapt the novel.

British director John Mackenzie joined for the project, having attracted critical acclaim with his London gangster drama The Long Good Friday (1980), starring Bob Hoskins. In an exclusive interview for this book, Mackenzie recalled the problems he faced. ‘It’s a fiendishly difficult thing to adapt, Graham Greene’s work. The stories are often quite melodramatic. It’s the background and characters and philosophic content that raise them to the level they’re at. The Honorary Consul was certainly one of those.’

When Mackenzie joined the film, Heyman had interest from Caine and American actor Richard Gere. The director confesses to early doubts about Caine’s suitability for the role of Fortnum. ‘I didn’t associate Michael Caine with this class of guy, your public school educated minor diplomat with a drink problem. A lot of people think of Michael Caine as a corblimey guy who can do corblimey parts with a bit of humour in them. But when we got involved in doing it, I got excited by him. My prejudices changed. He found qualities in the part that certainly superseded any of my other worries. He has this depth to draw on, he can make the characters interesting and different in each film.’

Mackenzie spent two weeks in Argentina researching the background to the film. He decided it was the perfect place to shot the movie and also convinced Heyman of this. But the day after the pair left Argentina, the South American country invaded the Falkland Islands, precipitating a war with Britain. As a result location filming was shifted to Mexico, with studio shooting at Shepperton, near London.

Just as the production began, a film called An Officer and a Gentleman became a box office hit in America. ‘It made him a sex symbol and a superstar,’ Mackenzie recalled. ‘When you’ve got someone like that in your film it can be very difficult.’ The Honorary Consul was financed by Paramount, which began taking more interest in Mackenzie’s picture. ‘We had these ridiculous arguments with these ignorant people, who were looking after their assets. They said, “You can’t make him talk in any voice but his own”. There were lots of calls through the night on telephones from LA.’

The film was released in the US during September 1983, where Paramount insisted it be renamed Beyond the Limit because American audiences would not know what a consul was – honorary or otherwise. ‘We had lots of fights about that,’ Mackenzie recalled. ‘But in the end you can’t do anything about it. You hand in the film and they change the title. I said no way can you change the title for Britain, we are not that ignorant.’ The R-rated movie got mediocre reviews, with Gere pilloried for his accent. Beyond the Limit grossed just under $6 million in the US.

In Britain the original title was used, but critical reaction was just as mixed when the 18-rated film was released in December 1983. Caine was nominated as best actor at the BAFTAs for his work on The Honorary Consul, but instead won the award for his performance in Educating Rita (1983). Soon afterwards the actor was approached by Greene is a London restaurant. ‘Graham told me didn’t like The Honorary Consul,’ Caine recalled for Hello in 2002. ‘I mean, he really gave me an ear-bashing on that film. But he insisted he liked me in it. I don’t know whether he really did or he just felt sorry for me.’

The Honorary Consul was released on VHS in 1986, but the tape has been deleted in the UK. The film has not been issued yet on DVD.

Reviews: ‘Strong talents on both sides of the camera haven’t managed to breathe life into this intricate tale of emotional and political betrayal, and result is a steady dose of tedium.’ – Variety
‘Unfortunately Richard Gere … is too much a film star – i.e. someone bigger than the parts he plays – and cannot convey the man within. Michael Caine, on the other hand, as the Consul, has never been better.’ – Sunday Times

Verdict: The Honorary Consul makes for an interesting contrast with The Quiet American (2002). Both are based on novels by Greene, both were adapted by Christopher Hampton and both feature Caine as an ageing British expatriate with a young lover being wooed by another man. The Quiet American is assuredly the stronger film of the pair. The Honorary Consul makes a decent stab at adapting one of Greene’s less cinema-friendly novels, but fails to convince. Although the film is suffused with the atmosphere of a seedy South American border town, the script takes far too long to reach the moral dilemma at the heart of the story. Gere is a major handicap, thanks to his erratic accent and an inability to create empathy as Dr Plarr. Caine is outstanding as Fortnum, giving a masterly performance.

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