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'Pascali's Island' (PG-13)

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
August 05, 1988

James Dearden, the writer of "Fatal Attraction," makes his directorial debut with the ponderous, painfully correct "Pascali's Island," a literary adaptation that takes itself so seriously one longs for Gilligan and the Skipper.

But this is the sort of weighty drama that calls for serious stagecraft -- the ruminative intensity of Ben Kingsley, the unfailing waspishness of Charles Dance and the girl-womanly vulnerability of Helen Mirren. (Where, one wonders, was Meryl Streep?) The cast is so polished, the edges of their characters are worn off.

Kingsley, eyes burning, has the central role of Basil Pascali, a Turkish mole dug in on the tiny Greek island of Nisi. It's 1908 and the Ottoman Empire is crumbling. But Pascali, a man of details, hardly notices. For 20 years he has spied on the islanders, an unappreciated secret agent in the sultan's service. No one ever responds to his fancifully written and fact-filled letters.

Though he's spent his life peeping at people, he doesn't understand his fellow man. And even worse, he doesn't trust him. It's a fatal flaw, and Pascali is just a Greek tragedy waiting to happen. He is an infuriating ninny, a pinhead, a silly goose who is taken in by the duplicitous Anthony Bowles, a smug archeologist, played with Windsorly condescension by Dance. Bowles enlists Pascali as the middleman in his dangerous but dull dealings with the local pasha. There's a lot of paperwork, and Dearden buries the actors under it. Dance twiddles his thumbs, while Kingsley plays with his worry beads.

Pascali becomes jealous of Bowles, who has become the lover of Lydia (Mirren), an exiled Viennese artist whom Pascali loves from afar. Bowles and Lydia make love in the sea, while poor Pascali looks on from the shore. It's a bloodless affair that has less to do with the lovers than with the way they ornament the screen. Perhaps Dearden picked that up from "Fatal Attraction" director Adrian Lyne.

It is easy to see why Dearden was attracted to Barry Unsworth's novel, with its twisted ending, and fatally flawed, obsessive protagonist. "Pascali's Island" is a case of wanting to be taken seriously after a popular success. Unhappily it hasn't got passion. Or Glenn Close. Or Gilligan.

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