This film is so atmospheric it makes you want to pack a rucksack, some provisions, bid the family goodbye and jump aboard a boat headed for the dark continent...welcome to Mountains of the Moon, based on the true life exploits of 1850's explorers Sir Richard Burton and John Hanning Speke.
Bob Rafelson has done a fine job directing this historical epic, and it's a shame this great film is not more readily available. It begins when Michael Small's wonderful theme segues over the titles into some tribal drums and we see ships landing on an African shore. Speke (Iain Glen) has travelled to Morocco to meet Burton (Patrick Bergin), a seasoned explorer. Both men have a fascination with finding the source of the Nile River.
The film jumps straight into the action, with Burton narrating their first foray together into the fold of the dark continent, the area on maps of the time that was simply a great blank expanse, labelled "Uncharted and Unexplored".
Their camp is attacked in the dead of night by a hostile tribe, who kill many of Burton's party, along with most of the African porters along for the journey, and take Speke captive, while Burton flees to the ocean shore with the head porter, but not before taking a spear through the face. Speke awakes in the morning to the brutal tribe picking through the camp and torturing survivors, and after being tortured himself (in a truly disturbing scene as we realise this tribesman that is stabbing him in the thighs with a spear is not doing it to "interrogate", he is doing it purely for the fun of it) makes a knuckle-biting escape to join Burton at the seaside where ships have come to take them home.
After this dramatic opening, the film settles into a nice rhythm, cutting back to some scenes in England where Burton meets Isabel Arundel (Fiona Shaw), who would become the love of his life. Fiona Shaw's performance is great, her powerful voice and demeanour a perfect match for Burton's larger than life persona and brash nature.
Then it's off to Africa again, and a wonderful trek across the endless savanna to discover the source of the great river that fascinates both men, and indeed an entire nation back home.
But Burton is struck ill on the journey, and it is Speke who finishes the trek, finding what he (correctly, though he didn't know it then) thought to be the source of the Nile, a great lake he named Victoria.
Back in England again, the story turns to the subsequent betrayal of Burton by Speke, in claiming sole credit for the discovery, and that drove a permanent wedge between the friends.
As in Burton's own words he describes his relationship with John Speke as being as close as two men can become without being lovers. That is truly shown in this film, the relationship is real, and heart-felt, by both performers in a truly amazing film.
Particularly moving is when Burton is informed of his friend's death/suicide while giving a speech, and though he tries, is unable to continue speaking. It's very well acted...he doesn't break down or anything, but you can see the sadness crawl across his features like a shadow as he falters over his words.
Costumes, music, photography, it's all superb, and to specify how superb it is would be redundant. It's simply better to experience it for yourself. It's immersive and rich, and for a historical epic (a genre notoriously prone to too-long, melodramatic and ultimately boring films) it moves along at a nice pace that never gets dull. The dialogue is wonderfully written, as is the film itself, adapted in part from Burton's own manuscripts.
The scenes in England are all the more beautiful with the performance of Fiona Shaw. Her final words to Burton are stirring and so effortlessly believable. Another standout scene is a brief appearance by Bernard Hill as Sir David Livingstone (you'll recognise him most recently as Theodan, King of Rohan in the Lord of the Rings films).
Perfect for a comfy night in on the couch, this movie has adventure, action, humour, depth of character and story, great music and photography, and a "sitting round the campfire telling stories" kind of feel that is just great. Highly recommended.
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