There are few things I appreciate about a film more than its sense of place. That’s what Peter Weir achieved in The Year of Living Dangerously (1982). The mood and the recreation of the Indonesian locale are so extraordinary (he used Manila and the Philippines as a stand-in for Djakarta and Indonesia) that they give you the feeling of living in that place in those times. A humid tropical world, bathed in sweat and a light that “drops off into darkness” (as cinematographer Russell Boyd described it in an interview with John C. Tibbetts from 2012), poverty and the hopelessness of its people. About the play of light, something Peter Weir was very specific about, Boyd further commented that “there was always a bit of dust in the air, so there was always a slight mustiness to the light, as well.”
It’s the mid 1960s, under the Sukarno regime, a time of simmering tension and political upheaval and of treacherous relations between the Indonesian people and the expat community. Mel Gibson is Guy Hamilton, a young, “ambitious but naïve” foreign correspondent, a radio reporter from Australia, who has just arrived in Djakarta, in search of scoops about Sukarno’s restless Indonesia and collapsing regime. Billy Kwant (astonishingly played by a woman, Linda Hunt, something I wasn’t even aware of until I saw the credits at the end) is an exotic little man and a photographer who teaches Hamilton the ropes of the city, and maybe becoming something more than that in the process – “Could you be the unmet friend?,” Billy asks. About casting a woman in the role of a man, the director said in an interview included in the book Peter Weir Interviews, edited by John C. Tibbetts: “I couldn’t find the right actor for the male part! I had to find the actor or risk delaying, even cancelling the film… It was like Cinderella’s slipper, every kind of short actor tried to make it work without success. What made it work? Was it the female sensibility inside the body of a man? Was it the deception itself, the mystery of it?”
Billy is in fact the key character and the key element in the story that contributes to establishing that mood and sense of place more than any shot of an actual place. He is often shown at his typewriter, his voiceover echoing film noir narration but functioning as an element for a story that is clearly of another place and time. “I’m master in the darkroom, stirring my prints in the magic developing bath. I shuffle like cards the lives that I deal with. Their faces stare out at me. People who will become other people. People who will become old, betray their dreams, become ghosts.” These manipulative impulses are also metaphorically employed throughout the film through the repeated appearance of the Indonesian wayang kulit puppets, which Kwant himself uses at one point for a shadow-play for Hamilton.
This story cannot be pinned down to a specific genre, nor should it be, because it’s the characters that are center stage, telling their own stories, characters – especially Billy (despite Guy’s psychological shift down the plot), very much part of the street life and culture of the city and immersed in the problems of the country – shaped by events and surroundings. And even if it involves a romance (Hamilton falls in love with Jill Bryant, a beautiful and chic British Embassy attaché played by Sigourney Weaver), it doesn’t turn into a melodrama. This is a land where hazard governs even the lives of those in love.
“This is her spirit, like a wavering flame, which only needs air to burn high,” is how Billy Kwant describes Jill, of whom he keeps a file in his bungalow, just as he does of Hamilton, one of those cards he shuffles, one of the lives he deals with. But they are friends, too, and he is also the one who throws Hamilton and Jill in together. For the character of Jill, Peter Weir recounted in an interview with Susan Mathews from 1985 that: “I made some quite major changes from the character in the novel” (the film was adapted from a novel by Christopher Koch) – “I didn’t see the Jill of the novel, I didn’t like her. And so I worked with Sigourney Weaver on constructing a woman that we found interesting – a combination of strength and femininity.”
She is. Unconventional and independent, a combination of regal beauty, underlying mischief and exuberance, Jill is a character that Sigourney carries out so naturally and the right reason for Guy Hamilton to give up the opportunity of the biggest story of his career when he joins her on the plane, because that’s the only way he can reclaim his humanity – there is a special smile Mel Gibson has when he goes through the gate to the plane, and when I watched the film and that moment came, I thought that it could not have been any other way, that it captured the essence of their story (you know how one of those moments occur in a film, when you think, yes, that’s it, that’s the film?) and of him “rejoining himself”. Then I read the interview with the director and found out that that smile was what he was looking for in the scene: “One of my favourite moments in the film is the mid-shot of Mel as he crosses the tarmac. We did several takes and I think the only thing I asked him to do was to smile. […] And he did that thing of tipping his head back…and to me the film was over.”
It’s in Billy’s bungalow where we see Jill wear a two-piece outfit (it resembles a dress at first look) in a deep shade of blue (the overall colour palette in that scene playing out so beautifully on the backdrop of black and white photography and paper clippings hung on the wall, file cabinets and desk covered in a realistically atmospheric mess) that appropriately reflects the intensity of her feelings for Hamilton. I am surprised Billy Kwant doesn’t use ink instead of his typewriter for writing down his reports about the lives and loves of those he deals with. It would have the same colour as Jill’s costume.