The Mosquito Coast ★★★

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

At the airport a few weeks ago I was looking for a book to take on holiday with me and decided to pick up Paul Theroux's The Mosquito Coast, my curiosity piqued by a vague memory of having seen the film as a kid, over 30 years ago now. Turns out it was a good decision as the book is a thrilling read - a brilliant, detailed character study central to a modern post-colonial myth that channels the spirit of Conrad's Heart of Darkness.

So it was with the novel fresh in mind that I tracked down Peter Weir's 1986 adaptation. The film doesn't miss any major plot points but it feels like punches are being pulled all the way through, right up to the ending, which is the biggest departure from the book and softens what should be the bitterest of blows. Here, Allie Fox meets his end with a resigned smile and drifts peacefully off to the netherworld accompanied by the plucked harps of cherubs as River Phoenix's calm narration wraps things up in an gently optimistic bow. In the book, Allie has degenerated into a raving lunatic, who drags his invalid body off to be eaten alive by vultures, leaving his family to an uncertain fate on the desolate Mosquito Coast, under the sun's unwavering glare.

The characterization is similarly hit and miss. Harrison Ford looks like the kind of rugged American outlaw you'd want playing Allie Fox, but he misses the extremities of the character. Whether that's down to Paul Schrader's writing or his own inability to plumb the depths of the character's soul, I'm not sure. In Theroux's novel, his genius for self-sufficiency is matched only by his megalomania, a trickle of paranoia that gradually becomes a river and engulfs his mind (Charlie's venture inside Fat Boy's guts and the terrifying glimpse he gets of the inner workings of his father's mind - a pivotal moment conceptually, if not structurally, in the book is absent here). That volatility, his proneness to sulk, frequent lapses into verbal violence and misanthropic ranting only occasionally emerge; in the main, Ford plays him with unflappable equanimity. In the book, from the moment Jeronimo explodes, sending his dreams up in smoke and poisoning his jungle idyll, Allie is a man literally and figuratively paddling upstream, vainly fighting the current as he's pulled ever downward. Where Theroux gave us a far-reaching commentary on the fall of man, an atavistic journey into darkness, here we have what often feels like little more than an extended family holiday where shit's gone seriously south.

The rest of the casting is OK - River Phoenix does a good job of playing Charlie in the beginning, but as time wears on, his character doesn't really develop - he doesn't fully convey the contempt and disillusionment Charlie feels towards his father, which at the end of the day, is what it's all about: a violent coming of age, nascent Oedpial drives coming to fruition. The twins barely feature, Jerry is a brat (he is in the novel too, but the humiliations he's forced to suffer at Allie's hands render him a lot more sympathetic). Mother, played by Helen Mirren, is one of the better performances; you do get at least some sense of her forbearance but also the lengths she will go to to protect her kids - even from Allie, if it comes to it; though again, this comes out much stronger in the novel. Of the more minor characters, Conrad Roberts is a standout as Mr. Haddy, and conveys his initial reverence for 'fadder' and also his increasing doubts about his efficacy. Haddy's critical intervention, saving the Foxs' lives by providing them with spark plugs and gasoline for the outboard motor, risking his own life in the process, makes it into the film, but as with everything else, it's glossed over somewhat.

John Seale's cinematography provide some beautiful shots of lush jungle fauna and evoke a real sense of place (and displacement), with location shooting in Belize standing in for Honduras. With the exception of the storm at Brewer's Lagoon (inexplicably relocated to the coast and never mentioned by name), the ferocity of the jungle is subdued. In the book, the despair the family feels at their inability to tame the land a second time is all too palpable, just like the way it strains at the last threads of sanity holding them together. Honduras (or Belize) is too scenic; while they might be great in a travelogue, there's a distancing effect to all the overhead shots of lush vegetation and placid rivers below when you really want to be in the thick of the green inferno, sweating it out with the Foxes, rather than observing them from a safe distance. It needed to be more savage.

It's probably not a good idea to watch an adaptation straight after reading a book, especially one as good as The Mosquito Coast; I made the same mistake with Dune. The urge to play spot the difference is too great. All the same, I don't think my critical faculties are too impaired to say that this is only an average film, regardless. Schrader's script sticks doggedly close to the text of the book - there's barely a line in the film that wasn't on the page - and it efficiently plots a line between the key loci, but somehow the essence is missing. It's all too safe, too family friendly; a sanitized version of what is at its heart a re-telling of the myth of Icarus; Allie Fox, the man who would be God (greater, because God was just a jobbing plumber), who could make ice from fire but whose hubris saw him scalped by the very scavengers he abhorred. As he predicted, the beak shall inherit the earth.

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