Donnersmarck – Lite

The Oscar-Winning German director takes on a big-budget Hollywood extravaganza, in any case a pleasant diversion

Pigeons and Johnny Depp on Piazza San Marco, a scene from the film The Tourist | Photo: Spyglass Entertainment

Following his lauded Oscar-winning debut The Lives of Others and getting every offer imaginable from Hollywood, German writer-director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck chose as his follow-up a very different type of film. Shot in Paris and Venice, The Tourist  is a big-budget, studio extravaganza that unites, for the first time, two of Hollywood’s biggest names – Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie. A remake of a 2005 French film called Anthony Zimmer, it is a glamorous, light hearted romantic comedy mixed with elements of action and thriller.

Whilst Hollywood has a long tradition of welcoming German-speaking directors that dates back to Eric von Stroheim, Fritz Lang and Billy Wilder, more recent arrivals have been considerably less celebrated. “It is very rare that a director in a foreign language crosses over and succeeds in making a big studio picture,” Michael Barker, a co-president of Sony Pictures Classics that distributed The Lives of Others, told Larry Rother of the International Herald Tribune in December. “Maybe it is something to do with language. I don’t know.”

With The Tourist, Donnersmarck has only half succeeded; visually stunning as it is, and successful as a pleasing diversion, it does little justice to the talented team involved and is a film that never quite takes off.

Those who have worked with Donnersmarck note his meticulous attention to detail – in The Lives of Others he was so specific about accuracy that he found the actual tape recording machines that the Stasi had used.

In The Tourist, he applies the same approach making Angelina Jolie’s character look as elegant as possible, with several days devoted to camera tests on different types of lipstick and white silk to ensure the right combination and that it would look good on film. Although spending so much time on the camera tests for this was bizarre, Donnersmarck admitted in a recent interview, the film narrative demanded that kind of material beauty.

Jolie plays Elise Clifton-Ward a British undercover Interpol agent who was assigned to follow a wanted fugitive named Alexander Pearce. Instead, she fell in love with him, thus acquiring a Scotland Yard following of her own.

We initially encounter her walking through Paris most capably on high heels and waiting at a café for word from Pearce. Elise is a beautiful woman of mystery, confident and well-attired – heads turn wherever she goes. Her elegance is captivating, recreating the look of Audrey Hepburn in Charade, but it is as if Elise could be on one long photo shoot, as she is continuously followed by the gaze of men and the camera. Her flawless posture, regal poise and immaculate clothes elevate her to superhuman.

However it is this very contrived emphasis on beauty and glamour that eventually serves to undermine The Tourist, as it seems to be too preoccupied with being elegant for the story or the dialogue to gain true momentum. The star quality of Jolie and Depp in a city even more beautiful are still not enough to rise above the weaknesses in the plot.

Depp who initially comes across as everyman Frank Tupelo – a widowed Wisconsin community college math teacher – is taken aback that someone as beautiful as Elise should sit opposite him on the train,  unaware that she is targeting him: she plans to use him as a decoy so that those following her will believe he is a ‘post-surgery’ Pearce.

While his poise and clothes are absolutely no match for Elise, Tupelo does come across with some humour and charm. They stay together in Venice at the luxurious and opulent Hotel Danieli, where Frank is appointed to sleep on the couch. He later ‘gatecrashes’ a ball in a sumptuous palace in an attempt to protect Elise from Pearce. The pair look out for each other in the dangerous situations ahead, and Elise realises she has fallen in love.

Acheson (Paul Bettany) a Scotland Yard detective follows Elise and Frank to Venice. Even when it is proved that Frank is just a tourist after all, not the infamous criminal Pearce, and when his superior (Timothy Dalton) puts and end to the costly investigation, Acheson persists with his mission and we get the feeling he is equally obsessed with Elise.

Meanwhile the British mobster Shaw (Steven Berkhoff) arrives on the scene with his Russian henchmen determined to track down Pearce and get his money back. Here the film uncomfortably shifts gears, particular when Shaw handles one of his henchmen sadistically, a jarring scene that does not quite fit the general tone of the film.

Yes, The Tourist is a pleasant diversion, but the fluffy plot frustrates and does not quite set up the ‘big twist’ at the end with enough impact. In the production stages the film was apparently dogged with changes: for one thing, Donnersmarck was not the original director, Lasse Hallstrom was, then Bharat Nalluri, before Donnersmarck stepped in and then reportedly left the project, returning just before shooting began. The leads also changed; Tom Cruise and Charlize Theron were originally cast and then backed out before settling on Jolie and Depp.

It may indeed be the deadly air of interchangeability, played out against the aging dampness that lies just beneath the surface of Venician magnificence, that lingers over this film’s decadent design and lack of dynamism.

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