Marlowe – Film Review

There are some roles that just seem perfect for an actor.

When director Neil Jordan decided to make a film about an older Phillip Marlowe it was obvious that Liam Neeson was the perfect choice. He can deliver drama, he can deliver action, and he has a voice that just seems perfect to narrate a noir detective film.

I went into Marlowe with low expectations, a mistake in hindsight given that those emotions had come from me reading things that had been said on the internet; largely people complaining that Neeson was playing Marlowe; a role made famous by actors such as Humphrey Bogart, Robert Mitchum and James Caan. What those complaints left out was that the screenplay for Marlowe called for a much older actor to step into the role.

Neeson’s Marlowe is an older ex-cop living in 1930s Los Angeles. Given the reasons that he has left the Police Force despite his age, he can’t live on a Police pension, so instead is working for himself as a Private Detective. He is a man who has built a reputation on being trustworthy, honest, and truthful.

There are signs that he is looking to slow down but all that changes when young socialite Clare Cavandish (Diane Kruger) walks into his office and hires him to find her lover, Nico (Francois Arnaud), who has vanished into thin air.

It turns out Clare is living in a twisted web. She is married but has an agreement with her husband that allows her to have lovers. She also has a spiteful relationship with her mother, famed actress Dorothy Quincannon (Jessica Lange). The two regularly compete against each other over everything and soon both Dorothy and Clare’s husband are on Marlowe’s list of suspects.

For me, Marlowe worked largely because of its screenplay and what director Neil Jordan does with the famous character. There are some directors out there who would have loved to have made Marlowe a younger character who is jumping over cars and doing elaborate stunts, but I like that Jordan has used the older Marlowe to create a thinking-person’s crime thriller.

I found myself enthralled by the plot, which was adapted for the screen by Jordan and fellow screenwriter William Monahan, as there are very little cliches or signposts along the way. Tying the mystery into an elite Country club, I felt that I was transported into a world where anyone could have been a suspect. Set in a place where Marlowe certainly didn’t belong, in turn this enhanced the suspense to a 10.

The screenplay is impressive because of what it does with the characters at hand. I was pleased by the fact that it didn’t just write Clare off as a ‘dumb blonde victim’ but instead portrayed her as a strong woman who knows what she wants. While it does make her flirtatious at times, at least it didn’t make the same mistake as Entrapment all those years ago and try to pair an aging actor up with a much younger woman. The fact that Marlowe refuses to give into Clare’s temptation gives strength to his character as well.

I thought the use of such strong characterisation also gave the cast the chance to shine. Diane Kruger is amazing as Clare, while Jessica Lange mixes class and aggression in her portrayal of Dorothy, a move which makes the scenes she shares with Marlowe absolutely enthralling. So well written and intense are those scenes that it feels like you are watching a two-hander theatrical production.

Then of course there is Liam Neeson playing Marlowe who I found was perfect for the role. So natural was the fit that I couldn’t imagine anyone else playing this rendition of the character. Neeson’s smoothness brings an air of James Bond to Marlowe, and he is amazing during some of the dialogue heavy scenes. I do have to admit that Neeson does show is age during some of the fight sequences, but even then, he manages to hold his own.

If you love a good detective story, you are going to enjoy Marlowe. I found the mystery had just enough plot twists to keep me guessing and, at times, it felt that Jordan has incorporated some British gangster film tropes in Marlowe and the blend worked well. Marlowe will certainly be savoured by those who enjoy a more serious side to their cinema experience.

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