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It's 1950 on San Pedro Island in the American Pacific Northwest. Commercial fisher Carl Heine Jr.'s dead body is pulled out of the water in a fishing net by his crew, he who died of head trauma. Kazuo Miyamoto is charged with his murder. Carl and Kazuo were once friends, had known each other since childhood, but WWII has placed a strain on any sort of relationship between the ethic Japanese and Caucasian populations of the area, the Japanese population which was and is still substantial on the island. Carl had motive regarding a land dispute between the two families, land which Carl's mother eventually sold from under the Miyamotos and which Carl had just repurchased. Evidence also points to Kazuo being on the water with Carl probably sometime during his last voyage, evidence which Kazuo knew would put him in a bad light, adding on top of being Japanese, and thus decided not to disclose to the investigating sheriff at the time he was questioned. Kazuo and his wife Hatsue's fear come ... Written by
Adapting this novel with its tricky, time-shifting narrative was always going to be a big task, but Scott Hicks' sumptuous and elegant film very nearly pulls it off. Hicks and co-writer Ron Bass move quickly into the courtroom and wisely use the trial to drive the plot, telling the backstory - the real story in this case - through a finely-woven complex of flashbacks. The difficulty is that this story is a rich, long and emotional tale which requires a fair degree of exposition for it to be satisfying. The screenplay is superbly economical in this regard, but there is no escaping the fact that the only way to cover so much ground in a film of tolerable length is to fly over it at 30,000 feet. The necessarily distant treatment this requires occasionally dilutes the emotional force which would have come from a more thorough and leisurely telling. Hicks strives valiantly to compensate with a powerfully emotive score - this works, but it doesn't always hit the mark. Rather than engendering emotion, James Newton Howard's musical is often so insistently overpowering that it locks the audience out. On occasions I felt strangely alienated by a wall of sound when I knew I should have been in tears. But that's a minor flaw in an otherwise excellent production. Overall, this is an intelligent and considered adaptation - probably the best that could be made from a novel which would have been incredibly difficult to bring to the screen. It's solidly acted, immaculately lit, and offers some of the most achingly beautiful imagery to illuminate the screen in years (the opening shots are magnificent). Most rewarding of all is the fact that Scott Hicks takes some real stylistic risks with this film. They don't always pay off, but when they do it's magical.
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