Tuesday, December 7, 2010

"Apartment Zero", Colin Firth's 1989 Chilling Lead Role

Although Colin Firth is in high profile of late, with his well-liked portrayal of King George VI coming on the heels of his acclaimed role ( a very different George) in "A Single Man", his talent has been in evidence for decades.

I recently re-visited the 1989 thriller, "Apartment Zero" (on VHS tape!).  I recall seeing this in its initial release and wondering why it had not become more popular.  Martin Donovan, the writer-director, created a milestone lead character for Firth, who perfectly embodied him in intimate detail.

Firth's performance is the best depiction of infatuation and fatal attraction I have ever seen.  Every controlled breath, tentative delivery, and subtle change of expression made me feel like an accomplice in George's obsession with his new, and equally dangerous, male companion.

George is a lonely Brit residing in Argentina, where he lives in a private world of old movies and fastidious solitude.  He sees to the care of his emotionally ill mother, who has been committed, and for whom George has a pathetic attachment.  Although he is starved for human contact, he resents and avoids his eccentric but friendly neighbors.  To pay the bills, he advertises for a roommate to share his large flat. 

After a series of disastrous interviews with prospective candidates, in walks Jack, played by Hart Bochner, who immediately arouses George's romantic, James Dean-like fantasies.  Jack, however, has some terrifying secrets of his own, which the film reveals at a deliciously even pace.

While his attraction is never discussed in explicit terms, George curries Jack's favor, and goes out of his way to preserve an intimacy that Jack exploits, and ultimately finds ridiculous.  When that occurs, George goes over the edge, and the film's sense of quiet dread explodes into outright horror.

Bochner is hot as the manipulative and attractive terrorist who knows how to use his confident sexuality to charm anyone to his will, and delights in toying with his adoring landlord as well as the neighbors who will provide him cover.

But it is Firth who makes this unusual story work. He keeps the character sympathetic, all the while maintaining a simmering passion just barely below the surface.  For anyone who has ever had a secret, even forbidden, attraction to an object of admiration that one knows is hopeless, George's plea to Jack to never suddenly leave him, is peculiarly moving, because we can identify with it so completely. 

Firth expertly interprets the repressed physical attraction, the awkwardness of a man who lacks social skills, the jealousy of intrusive outsiders, and the final  rage at his betrayal, so well, that one may uncomfortably assume that Firth is not acting, but playing out a real-life conflict.  He is that good.

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