The Man from London
Tilda Swinton, Miroslav Krobot, Erika Bók, János Derzsi, Agi Szirtes, István Lénárt
The Hungarian master unfolds a glacial, hypnotic noir, based on Georges Simenon's novel.
Beautifully shot in deep chiaroscuro, and leanly plotted around a crime, its cover-up and the ripple effects from both, The Man from London is almost a classical film noir. But it’s directed by Béla Tarr, and so its detail is heightened by languorously slow takes, its plot is revealed in steps as slow and deliberate as chess moves, and its characters move in baffled isolation through a comfortless environment. The result is a demanding but intensely absorbing experience: an existentially-slanted whodunnit, played out on a timeless, epic scale.
Based upon a little-known novel by Georges Simenon, the film unfolds largely from the point of view of dockside signal controller Maloin (Miroslav Krobot). From his solitary post one night, Maloin witnesses a mysterious sequence of events: a boat docks, and a suitcase and a corpse are consigned to the water before it departs again. Impulsively, Maloin goes to the quay and retrieves the suitcase, which contains English banknotes in great number. Though he doesn’t share his bounty with his hectoring wife (Tilda Swinton), he does make an awkward effort to please his unhappy teenage daughter (Erika Bok) by buying her a fur. While the gift is sorrowfully appropriate (there’s so little softness or comfort in these lives that fur seems a dreamlike luxury, as is evinced by the babbling, otherworldly shop assistants who sell it), it doesn’t go down well at home. Maloin’s marriage is a drowned wreck, and his life so steeped in sadness that even an unexpected fortune only compunds his woes.
Meanwhile, a British policeman arrives in town to track down the eponymous “man from London”: the party responsible for the initial theft and murder. Like a sleepwalker, Maloin is drawn into the investigation.
The geographic and temporal placing of Tarr’s film is deliberately obscure, and its world is lent further distance from our own by highly stylised performances. Swinton is dubbed into Hungarian, but so uncertain is our cultural setting here that she could just as acceptably have spoken in English. After all, there’s no pretence that the actors playing Englishmen are anything other than Hungarian. Still, such contrary choices are the rightful preserve of those directors who have already earned their place in cinema history – and Tarr is one of few who have created their own instantly recognisable screen languages. This intriguing new work slows the story to a glacial pace, providing a shimmering, near-silent space in which to ponder the questions it sets about light and shade, good and evil, human connectedness and existential isolation.
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