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Joffé, Roland (1945-)

Director, Producer

Main image of Joffé, Roland (1945-)

Born in London in 1945, Roland Joffé directed for the theatre and television before making his impressive feature film debut, the Oscar-winning The Killing Fields (1984). Ten years earlier Joffé had been directing episodes of Coronation Street, and his journey from there to big-budget film production, directing stars such as Robert de Niro, Paul Newman and Demi Moore, has been both remarkable and, ultimately, disappointing.

In his ten years of directing for television Joffé developed a reputation for handling radical drama, such as Trevor Griffiths' serial about a Labour politician, Bill Brand (1976), and controversial plays such as The Spongers (1978), The Legion Hall Bombing (1978) and United Kingdom (1981). It was on such dramas that Joffé's humanist socialism was first in evidence, for it was ultimately the effect that politics had on individuals which interested him, rather than the larger issues which the plays raised, and it is this concern with the fate of individuals subject to forces beyond their control which has characterised Joffé's feature films.

In The Killing Fields, it is the fate of a New York Times reporter and his Cambodian translator, caught up in the escalating war in Cambodia, which forms the emotional core of the film and it is this human drama which is foregrounded, rather than the politics of the war in Cambodia. Similarly in The Mission (1986), the £17 million Goldcrest production about a Jesuit mission in South America in the mid 18th century, it is the fate of Jeremy Irons' idealistic missionary, having formed a Christian community among the Guarani tribespeople with the help of Robert de Niro's slave-trader, that is the focus of the film, rather than the broader historical and political context. Joffé was unequivocal about his interest in the film: "What I liked about it was that there was a mythical element to the story - which was more than political, which was also to do with redemption and love."'

In Shadow Makers (1989), about the Los Alamos project to develop the atomic bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Joffé's interest was once again in the scientific challenge and moral dilemmas facing the scientists rather than the global consequences of their invention. While made for an American studio (Paramount) and featuring an American star (Paul Newman), the involvement of Tony Garnett as producer resulted in the film having a more restrained, almost documentary, quality after the extravagant spectacle of The Mission.

Shadow Makers was perhaps too serious a subject, and too undramatic in its realisation, to be a box-office success. Joffé's subsequent films - the Anglo-French co-production City Of Joy, and the Hollywood features The Scarlet Letter and Goodbye Lover, were box-office and critical failures. His most recent film, Vatel, set in the court of Louis XIV and starring Gerard Depardieu and Uma Thurman, was received so badly at Cannes in 2000 that it has not been released.

Saynor, James, 'The Road To Cambodia', Stills, Dec. 1984/Jan. 1985, pp. 20-3
Saynor, James, 'Columbia Picture', Stills, May/June 1986, pp. 92-101

Lez Cooke, Reference Guide to British and Irish Film Directors

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Bill Brand (1976)Bill Brand (1976)

Ambitious series exploring the turmoil of the 1970s Labour Party

Thumbnail image of Legion Hall Bombing, The (1978)Legion Hall Bombing, The (1978)

Challenging drama recreating a Belfast bombing trial

Thumbnail image of Spongers, The (1978)Spongers, The (1978)

Acclaimed dramadoc showing the tragic impact of welfare cuts on a family

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Thumbnail image of Puttnam, Lord David (1941-)Puttnam, Lord David (1941-)