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Two anthropologists married to each other go to an island off of Papua New Guinea for field research in pre-World War II. Eventually the war breaks out and many lives are disrupted and complicated. Written by
I once met a man, not my husband, another man. He looked back on a life. What would you carry into the darkness? For me, I'll take the smell of a pearl shell, freshly opened, one day on a beach.
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Real Anthropology is of course an impossibility - how can a human study human society objectively? Earlier this century Western scholars were under the comfortable delusion they could apply the eye of God technique (so useful for writing novels) to the study of indigenous peoples in various parts of the earth. The eye of God sees all, but the anthropologist, constrained by his or her own conditioning, saw only a partial picture, or else got it wrong entirely. Thus Margaret Mead saw free love in Samoa, where in reality there was a complicated series of taboos.
This visually gorgeous film, made with great difficulty on location in the Trobriand Islands of New Guinea, is the kind of picture you would get if National Geographic did joint ventures with Mills and Boon. Spunky young anthropology graduate (Maya Stange) marries her handsome if rather remote Professor (Martin Donovan) and they go off to the fabled Trobriand Islands to do a year's fieldwork in the steps of the great Malinowski who described them as the Isles of Love. The Prof has the rather strange idea that he can study a matrilinear society (where kinship is determined by female descent) by talking exclusively to the men. Naturally Spunky has other ideas and soon starts to make waves. Conveniently located nearby is devastatingly handsome Trader Dick (Rufus Sewell) who soon starts displaying an interest in Spunky. Naturally things get a bit tense. Just as the plot gets a bit tedious, Force Majeure in the form of World War Two intervenes. Will Spunky find her lost love? The answer depends on which version of the film you see.
The two anthropologists, neatly outfitted in tropical linen, make bulls in china shops look like brain surgeons. The Prof is supposed to be experienced, yet he plunks himself down in the middle of the village, completely ignoring the fact that not only can he see all through the village, the inhabitants can see him 24 hours a day also. He, or the script writers, had only to read Malinowski's diaries to appreciate the difficulties of this kind of fieldwork. Spunky on the other hand intervenes every time she comes across a local custom she doesn't like, though to her credit after causing a tragedy she comes to see the folly of her ways. Then she overreacts by going native for a while.
The real problem with the film though is that, like Spunky and the Prof, we stay outside the native society, we do not feel with them, but observe them from a distance. The anthropologists, two implausible characters in a half-formed plot, simply do not get inside their subject. The redneck traders understand the natives better even as they exploit them. As one of the traders says, "these are the nicest people in the world and you can't believe a thing they say." That does help to explain how Margaret Mead got it so spectacularly wrong in Samoa.
All that said, Maya Stange as Spunky holds the viewer's attention and Rufus Sewell does a nice understated Trader Dick with a somewhat indeterminate accent - Dick is mean to be American.. Max Cullen turns in a convincing portrait of a weary (and regrettably authentically racist) Australian colonial servant. The photography is as luscious as one could wish. Maybe the producers should have just made a documentary and left Messrs Mills and Boon on the shelf.
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