In Alexandria, in 1938, Darley (Michael York, a young British schoolmaster and poet, makes friends through Pursewarden (Sir Dirk Bogarde), the British Consular Officer, with Justine (Anouk Aimée), the beautiful and mysterious wife of a Coptic banker. He observes the affairs of her heart and incidentally discovers that she is involved in a plot against the British, meant to arm the Jewish underground in Palestine. The plot finally fails, Justine is sent to jail, and Darley decides to return to England.Written by
George Cukor's adaptation of Lawrence Durrell's ALEXANDRIA QUARTET forms the shape of a dial made of character traits from medieval mystery plays--Fanatic Patriotism, Sexual Cunning, Heartless Bargaining, Furtive Retreat. If Durrell sought to catalogue every human impulse, Cukor had another, lower agenda that serves the material beautifully: shifting these allegorical characters into ripe, lustrous kitsch icons who seem to have time-travelled from a Sternberg movie circa 1931.
The whole picture seems to have undergone a time-machine move from THE SHANGHAI GESTURE to swinging '69. It's Cukor's most vibrant movie visually, and each gorgeously staged and color-patterned shot finds a new way to layer an Islamic tapestry atop psychedelic poster art.
Cukor, brought in as a replacement, brings a vigor to the material you don't associate with him, and at 70, he still knew how to shape the beats of a scene like a Broadway pro. It is reported that he and the star, Anouk Aimee, loathed one another, and in honesty it's easy to see Cukor's frustration: she gives a dismally coy, incommunicative performance as the black widow whose web forms the story. She seems aberrantly at odds with the coolly dignified, taciturn style of the other performances: Dirk Bogarde, as the Graham Greene-ish diplomat with a lurid secret may never have been more creepily sympathetic than he is here. And John Vernon, an actor best known for playing pompous authoritarians in B movies, has such noble composure as Justine's long-suffering husband that he seems to turn into a folk-art engraving of a noble and besieged human soul.
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