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Roeg, Nicolas (1928-)

Director, Cinematographer, Writer

Main image of Roeg, Nicolas (1928-)

Nicolas Roeg's films deal in raw emotion, and shake our preconceptions about civilisation and cinema. At the peak of his form he is one of Britain's most adventurous directors. The medium's expressive potential is stretched through a masterly montage of time and space; the films' characters are equally tested, forced into journeys of self-exploration, cut adrift from their usual moral and physical surroundings. None of his best films conform to the normal rules of commercial entertainment; they operate more like experimental visual machines, bent on puncturing human complacency. He has filmed Joseph Conrad's classic novella Heart of Darkness (for cable television in 1994) and it was Conrad who uttered what could be Roeg's credo: "A man who believes he has no illusions has at least that one".

Roeg was born in London on 15 August 1928. After National Service he joined the film industry as tea-maker and clapper-boy at Marylebone Studios, working his way up to camera operator on Ken Hughes's The Trials of Oscar Wilde (1960), Fred Zinnemann's The Sundowners (1960) and other films; he also contributed to scripts for Cliff Owen (A Prize of Arms, 1961) and Lawrence Huntington (Death Drums Along the River, 1962). However, it was as an inventive cinematographer that Roeg first attracted critical attention, especially on Roger Corman's The Masque of the Red Death (1964), Fran├žois Truffaut's Fahrenheit 451 (1965) and Richard Lester's Petulia (1968). Intriguingly, each of these assignments anticipated aspects of his own feature films. Petulia foreshadows the complex time leaps and splintered narratives of Roeg's mature work; while its depiction of 1960s permissiveness disintegrating into despair and violence finds resonant echoes in Performance. The Masque of the Red Death features a 'Red Death' figure that re-materialises in a different, even more sinister guise in Don't Look Now. The cold, futuristic surface of Fahrenheit 451 re-emerges in The Man Who Fell to Earth, with its penetrating, alien vision of the emptiness of modern life.

Roeg moved into direction in 1968, paired with the painter and writer Donald Cammell on Performance, an ambitious film centring on the confrontation between a gangster on the run (James Fox) and a pop idol in retreat (Mick Jagger). Cockney accents, graphic violence, a sympathetic view of London's hallucinatory drug culture, and a complex narrative concerned with identity and power, proved too heady a brew for Warner Bros. executives and the film's release was delayed for two years. By that time Roeg was in Australia directing and photographing Walkabout, his solo debut, a rite-of-passage drama built round the relationship between a teenage Aborigine (David Gulpilil) and two white children (Jenny Agutter and Luc Roeg), who become lost in the Australian desert after their suicidal father tries to kill them. Playwright Edward Bond supplied sinewy dialogue, but nothing could compete with Roeg's startling images of fierce orange suns, lizards and insects, and savage terrain. The film's unique resonance attracted both audiences and critics.

Roeg's biggest success, however, came with Don't Look Now (UK/Italy, 1973), a bizarre supernatural tale, based on a Daphne du Maurier short story. A glamorous, fashionable couple (Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland) are haunted by the accidental drowning of their little daughter. In Venice, where Sutherland's John Baxter is restoring the church of San Nicolo' dei Mendicoli, they attempt to come to terms with their grief: she through faith in two eccentric English mediums, he through the pursuit of an elusive red-hooded figure that seems to resembles his dead daughter. Mystery, tragedy, sensuality, and the evocative depiction of decaying Venice as a city of death, helped give the film both genuine profundity and popular appeal.

Roeg's subsequent films have been uneven. The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) makes clever use of David Bowie's otherworldly weirdness by casting him as a benign but unhappy alien; but the character's drift into exhaustion and confusion gives the film an unsatisfactory dying fall. Bad Timing (1980) is sharper and much more vicious, with convincing performances by Theresa Russell (subsequently Roeg's second wife) as a sensual, sexually liberated young woman and Art Garfunkel as the inhibited psychoanalyst who becomes destructively obsessed with her. Shot in Vienna and Marrakesh, the film is visually remarkable, but the disturbingly frank depiction of cruelty and sexual perversion upset the Rank Organisation, which preferred to lose their substantial investment rather than show the film in their cinemas.

A similar fate awaited Eureka (UK/US, 1982), a big budget film backed by MGM, based on the real-life story of the successful gold prospector Sir Harry Oakes, murdered (most probably by the American Mafia) in 1943. An enthralling beginning in the frostbitten goldfields of the Yukon gives way to languid decadence after Gene Hackman's miner strikes it rich and discovers that fabulous wealth brings disappointment and tragedy. Though Roeg's imagery is fascinating, the visual attractions cannot prevent the story's collapse into an ill-resolved murder mystery. MGM complained that Roeg had not delivered the film he had promised, and avoided giving it the expected wide release; one can understand their point of view.

Roeg restored his commercial credibility with the more modest Insignificance (1985), which imaginatively fantasised an encounter between four post-war American icons, Marilyn Monroe, Albert Einstein, Joe DiMaggio and Joseph McCarthy. It was considered audacious enough to win a Cannes Festival prize, but the originality lay in Terry Johnson's play rather than Roeg's direction, and the film creaks under the weight of philosophical dialogue. Castaway (1986), with Oliver Reed and Amanda Donohoe marooned on a desert island, left no such shackles on Roeg's visual exuberance, though pretty settings and excellent performances did little to disguise the thinness of the material. Roeg's last mainstream movie was an adaptation of Roald Dahl's children's story The Witches (1989): black, cruel, and entertaining enough, but far removed in style and intent from the subtlety and imaginative flair of his other venture into the world of children, Walkabout.

Elsewhere, Roeg appeared to drive himself into a cul-de-sac, making films of little public appeal. The unrewardingly eccentric comedy-drama Track 29 (US/UK, 1988), from a Dennis Potter script originally earmarked for Joseph Losey, was followed by a disappointing adaptation of Brian Moore's novel Cold Heaven (US, 1992), unusually dour and dry in its treatment of guilt and paranoia. Two Deaths (1995), an oppressive, talky chamber piece about romantic obsession, set in Bucharest as the Ceausescu government falls was equally disappointing. Subsequent features were made for cable TV.

Roeg's later decline is regrettable; but it has done nothing to dent the potency of his best work, or lessen the inspiration his career has given to younger film makers like Michael Winterbottom and all cineastes who view cinema as a provocation not a palliative, the ideal medium for shedding light into our own dark places.

Hacker, Jonathan and Price, David, Take Ten. Contemporary British Film Directors (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991)
Izod, John, The Films of Nicolas Roeg (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1992)
Salwolke, Scott, Nicolas Roeg Film By Film (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 1993)
Sinyard, Neil, The Films of Nicolas Roeg (London: Letts, 1991)

Neil Sinyard, Reference Guide to British and Irish Film Directors

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