Posted in: Disc Reviews by Gino Sassani on February 25th, 2009
In 1913 Marie Belloc Lowendes wrote the novel that this film was based upon. She claimed to have once met a woman at a dinner party who claimed to have had Jack The Ripper as a lodger at her boarding house. Lowendes never tried to verify the claim, or learned anything else about the incident, but it did cause her to do some research on the infamous killer. The result combined with that simple encounter’s claim became a best selling novel. It would be adapted to film not once but several times, including a film by Alfred Hitchcock. Director David Ondaatje makes it clear that the source of this film is the original novels and that he did not set out to remake any of the previous film versions of the story. I’ve only ever seen the Hitchcock version so I can’t speak for the others, but this is not the same film as Hitchcock made at all.
Hope Davis stars as Ellen. She and her husband have fallen on hard times. They need to rent out a guest house in their yard to help make ends meet. They have also fallen on hard times emotionally. He stays out until all hours, and she has become starved for attention. When a mysterious man (Baker) arrives to rent out the house, he might be her answer to both problems. She begins to flirt with the stranger almost immediately. He has asked for complete privacy and appears hot and cold to her advances. We learn that she’s suffered some kind of breakdown in the past, but her husband appears willing to leave her alone with the stranger in spite of the fact she has been yearning for attention.
Meanwhile the city is experiencing a series of prostitute killings. The murders appear to resemble a series of murders seven years before, but that man was caught, convicted, and since executed for the crimes. Detective Manning (Molina) is in charge of the investigation with a rookie cop he doesn’t have the patience or time to train. Manning is being racked with guilt that he might have had the wrong man executed for the previous murders the clearer it becomes that the same man is now killing again. What makes matters worse for Manning is the fact that an offhand remark he made during the first investigation compared the killer to Jack The Ripper. Now it appears the killer has fixated upon both Manning and The Ripper. He is now killing along the same patterns as the original Jack From Hell. Manning’s wife is in a mental ward, suffering from depression and a suicide attempt. Their daughter blames him, and his wife won’t even see him. As the investigation unravels, it could be any of these main characters committing the crimes, even Manning himself.
While going out of his way to make this film its own version, Ondaatje also filled it with many loving references to Hitchcock’s body of work. You’ll find some of the film tricks used through Hitchcock’s career imitated in this film. One might have considered that a mistake, particularly if you’re trying to distance yourself from that effort, but it does a remarkable job of combining these elements into a unique style that gives this film a tremendous atmosphere. Finally, high style that is not distracting from the film itself. I get so frustrated when I see films that are so burdened by their styles that the film itself gets lost amid a flurry of artistic camera moves or f/x tricks. That didn’t happen here. The filmatic styles only heighten the experience. From speeding the film up or slowing it down in subtle ways to outright artistic shots, this film flourishes because of them. There is an intense scene during one of the murders. You see the top half of the woman as she is being killed through a gap between two dumpsters. At first it looks like we’re seeing her through a mirror. You never witness the violence itself, but just watching the woman’s struggles is an intense experience, indeed. In another murder all we ever see is her feet and legs from before she is attacked until after she is killed. It’s not a particularly bloody film when you consider the subject matter. There’s a lot left to the imagination here, but you certainly get a kick start to begin the horrible imagery. It’s one of the most effective serial killer films I’ve ever seen.
How about a character study with many characters worth studying? Each of the main characters is offered up at one time or another as the killer. Never is it a stretch. You will believe that any of these people could have done these brutal crimes. The cast here is perfect all the way around. I always liked Simon Baker, since the first time I saw him on television’s The Guardian. He’s not the kind of actor you get right away. At first glance he appears to sleepwalk through a part, putting in next to no effort. The more you watch him, however, you discover how nuanced his performances truly are. He’s perfect as the mysterious titler Lodger. He doesn’t really have much screen time here, but he makes the most of every second. Alfred Molina has made a career out of being underestimated. I’ll admit I never gave him a spitting chance as Doc Ock in the second Spider-Man film, but he blew us all away. He does the same thing here. Manning is a very complicated and multilayered character here. He’s dealing from it from several angles, and yet has a determination that beats through it all. Hope Davis is virtually invisible in the part of Ellen. She acts through sheer emotion and totally inhabits the part. This is a great cast put into a wonderfully atmospheric piece. I guarantee you’ll find this a compelling film whatever you thought of any of the earlier versions.
The Lodger is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1. This is a very atmospheric film. While it’s far from the most sharp picture I’ve seen, I do have to say that it all fits together to give you a highly immersive experience. Black levels are only average, but the gritty breakdown actually looks as if it belongs there. This is a very dark film, so colors never really pop. I will have to say there was an effort to bring out the reds in the film. I’m not just talking blood, because there’s not a whole lot of that. Lights and clothing seem to shine a bit brighter or glow with a little more shine when there is a tint of red involved.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 track is performs well without being very aggressive. It’s a dialog driven film, and you get that in crystal clarity. Something should be said here of John Frizzell’s wonderfully moody score. The operatic music and choral quality particularly during the murders elevates this film instantly to a class all its own. The presentation of that score here is admirable.
Deleted and Alternative Scenes: There are 9 in all, but you can use the handy play all feature to watch the entire 8 minutes. There is an annoying studio copyright notice at the end of EACH of the scenes. Do they really think we’re going to rip off scenes they discarded because they weren’t good enough for the film? Please! You can use the chapter advance to skip the 4 seconds for each clip.
Behind The Shadows: This 18 minute feature covers mostly the story idea and the characters. Cast and crew talk about the film in the traditional interview clips mixed with scenes from the movie. The Hitchcock homages are acknowledged here as well.
On the surface none of this film is new or original. We’ve seen the cat and mouse game between killer and murderer and even the lead detective as prime suspect angle before. There have been more Jack The Ripper inspired serial killer movies than I could accurately count. The mysterious stranger who doesn’t want his privacy invaded is also nothing new. Heck, the story itself has been filmed at least four times before. What makes this film original is the way these elements are woven with a good cast into a very real atmospheric thriller. “Nothing’s typical. It is unusual, however.”