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‘Pascali’s Island’ (PG-13)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
August 05, 1988

Ben Kingsley transforms movies. Whether it is portentous (Sir Richard Attenborough's "Gandhi") or small-scale (Harold Pinter's "Turtle Diary") or coldly intellectual (Pinter's "Betrayal"), he pulls you in with a slow, subtle precision.

The ever-moist brown eyes, the easily triggered smile, a voice that's smooth and lumpy all at once like lentil puree; they're all ingredients in a delicate human blend. And in James Dearden's otherwise only respectable "Pascali's Island," Kingsley pleases the palate again.

He's Basil Pascali, living on the Turk-occupied (and fictional) island of Nisi, as world superpowers drift unknowingly toward World War I. Pascali, a spy for the declining Ottoman Empire, is almost literally waiting for his ship to come in. The spiritual cargo he craves is love and acceptance -- whether from his uncommunicative Turkish employers, his Viennese immigrant painter-friend Lydia Neuman (Helen Mirren) or the mysterious English visitor Anthony Bowles (Charles Dance) whose archaeological activities pique Basil's suspicions.

In 20 years, Pascali has heard nothing from the Turkish government, though his checks come regularly. His epistolary pleas for acknowledgement have all the intensity of a theologian's quest for God. Working thanklessly for a distant, Islamic power on an island full of Greek animosity, he has a lonely outpost.

When British opportunist Bowles comes to the island, Basil must take a leap of faith. Bowles offers a fee to the island's Pasha (Nadim Sawalha) so he can excavate the land for valuable curios. He enlists Basil as translator and go-between. Curious about the Englishman's motivations, Basil finds himself unwillingly drawn into friendship and a battle of wills. Worried about losing underground riches, the Pasha changes his mind about the digging deal. But Bowles refuses to break the contract. The Pasha (with a secret agenda of his own) puts the heat on Basil, just as Bowles takes him into his confidences. Bowles has also started a romance with Lydia -- whom Basil has loved in secret for years.

Basil, in a Judas Iscariot-type dilemma between love and duty, fidelity and betrayal, discovers the truth at a bloody price. But Dearden's tragedy doesn't have the teary punch it's intended to -- which has more to do with his plotting than the characters' (Dearden also scripted "Fatal Attraction").

Dance (rapidly becoming England's leading tuxedo wearer), is appropriately aristocratic and dastardly as Bowles. Helen Mirren has always been good at playing sexy eccentrics. But it is Kingsley's performance, as the despairing victim of his own actions, that makes this island worth a visit.

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