Peter Weir's flair for saturating the screen with ominous settings and foreshadowings of violence and catastrophe is impressively magnified in "The Year of Living Dangerously." The catch, which fortunately doesn't catch up with the movie until moments before the fade-out, is that Weir's weak sense of story construction is magnified right along with his pictorial sophistication.
The principal setting of this grievously flawed yet compelling tale of political intrigue, certainly a triumph of atmosphere if not of coherent dramatization, is Jakarta in 1965. A novel and persuasively sinister location, Sukarno's Indonesia (fabricated by Weir and his brilliant scenic collaborators in Australia and the Philippines) is recalled at a period when it was about to become a powder keg. Miscalculating his ability to control an insurrectionary Communist Party, Sukarno probably facilitated the party's eventual attempt at a coup, which failed miserably and provoked a grisly aftermath of murderous reprisals.
"The Year of Living Dangerously" certainly succeeds in making the viewer feel as if he's been culturally displaced, transplanted to an exotic hot spot where secure signals and landmarks are no longer available and sudden, nasty forms of death may be lurking around the corner.
The film's pervasive sense of apprehension and dread is meant to find a dramatic focus in the love affair of an Australian correspondent, Mel Gibson as Guy Hamilton, the ambitious representative of a radio network, and a British Embassy staffer, Sigourney Weaver as Jill Bryant, the Girl Friday of the military attache'. An extremely attractive and potentially scintillating romantic match, the costars are handicapped by the curiously deflating anticlimactic hitches in the plot. Their attachment develops rather late in the story and never quite evolves into an effective Grand Passion.
Betrayal is the obvious dramatic device waiting to be sprung at the climax of this story, and a situation evolves in which Guy's lust for a scoop might tempt him to compromise Jill, who has entrusted him with a dynamite piece of classified information out of loving concern for his well-being. Although a painfully effective trap might be sprung here, the filmmakers merely toy with the prospect. Far from erupting in a way that forces fateful, compromising choices on the principal characters, the Indonesian explosion remains weirdly irrelevant to their fates.
"The Year of Living Dangerously" is certainly dominated in human terms by supporting actress Linda Hunt's extraordinary performance as a diminutive, melancholy, half-caste middleman named Billy Kwan, a cameraman who has mysterious contacts throughout the jungle of Indonesian political factions and takes a solicitous interest in the welfare and romance of Guy and Jill.
This tiny, brilliantly elusive actress has submerged herself in another sexual identity--not quite The Opposite, perhaps, since Billy seems to belong to some indeterminate range between male and female. He's freakish as well as dwarfish and yet an immensely touching, fascinating character. In fact, the engrossing mystery of Billy's character can't be confined within the limits of the movie itself. Long after "The Year of Living Dangerously" ends, it's Billy who goes on haunting your thoughts.
I suppose the key to Hunt's performance is the realization of an intensely indeterminate, outcast individual. Part Oriental and part Australian, Billy's racial makeup is as borderline and precarious as his gender. Although he has access to every social setting in this corrupt outpost of the Third World, he really doesn't belong to any particular group, and his actions, which include such suspect behavior as keeping detailed dossiers on friends and acquaintances, seem to grow out of a desperate need to keep the overwhelming consciousness of loneliness and isolation from crushing him. He's a little man of generous, romantic and manipulative instincts whose gnomish appearance and dimensions make it impossible to cultivate those instincts to the degree that would satisfy his ardent, ambitious nature. He's stunted and blocked in certain ways that are meant to suggest the tortured, compromised situation of the country he's adopted. In fact, Billy identifies with Sukarno personally, and the failure of this Little Big Man to measure up to a national crisis and maintain a delicate despotic balancing act between Left and Right appears to drive Billy to the brink of despair.
It's unlikely that anyone who sees "The Year of Living Dangerously" will ever forget Hunt's performance or Weir's orchestration of a foreboding atmosphere. Still, there's no particular reason why these marvelous aspects couldn't be coordinated with the story in an organic way, so that Billy's character, the characters of the lovers and the ominous intimations all paid off in coherent dramatic terms.