In "The Intended," Brenda Fricker displays a saving dark humor as a tough ivory trader at a station in a Southeast Asian jungle in 1924. She is a sturdy widow who has taken over for her late husband with a firm hand. A greedy survivor, she maintains an iron rule over her small compound's inhabitants as well as the natives. She has also clearly belittled her sole surviving son (Tony Maudsley) all his life. At 35, he is a well-educated but ineffectual, paunchy layabout hovered over by his obsessively devoted nanny (Olympia Dukakis), with whom he has a very close relationship indeed.
To this jungle outpost has come a young but determined surveyor (JJ Feild), eager to make his fortune, accompanied by his lover (Janet McTeer), a handsome, careworn woman in her 40s desperately hoping for a fresh chance at love and happiness. This couple couldn't have come to a worse place to better their lives. When Fricker's tart-tongued Ethel Jones overplays her tyrannical ways, the small, isolated world she has controlled so totally swiftly comes apart.
As does the film, which was directed by Kristian Levring and co-written with McTeer. Until Fricker is sidelined by the plot, it is possible to consider that the filmmakers had in mind a dark comedy about Europeans undone in exotic, remote locales. But at this point it becomes clear that the film is, in fact, very serious about its characters succumbing to familiar jungle rot, a fate that "The Intended" treats as the stuff of Greek tragedy. The misguided, delirious result offers the perverse guilty pleasure of watching a roster of distinguished actors earnestly swimming against a tidal wave of silliness.
Silent cinema was the perfect medium in which gifted filmmakers could transform melodrama into high art because its purely visual expression imposed a wonderfully rigorous discipline. Conceivably, a Tod Browning or an Erich von Stroheim might have pulled off "The Intended" had it been made in the decade in which it is set.
Despite Malaysia jungle locales, "The Intended" is highly theatrical with swaths of well-turned dialogue. In fairness, even though the cast seems as if it were performing under a proscenium instead of before a camera, some of its members — Fricker in particular — have their moments. In the climactic scene, Welsh-born actor Maudsley and McTeer reveal impressive emotional range and mastery of their craft and momentarily transform the film. But in the end, the impact of "The Intended" is more unintentional than not.
MPAA rating: Unrated
Times guidelines: Some sexuality, adult themes
Janet McTeer...Sarah Morris
Brenda Fricker...Mrs. Jones
Tony Maudsley...William Jones
JJ Feild...Hamish Winslow
An IFC Films release of a Parallax Indpendent/Produktionsselskabet production in association with Projekt Inc. Director Kristian Levring. Producers Malene Blenkov, Patricia Kruijer. Executive producer Sally Hibbin. Screenplay by Levring and Janet McTeer. Cinematographer Jens Schlosser. Editors Nicholas Wayman Harris, Andrew John McClelland. Music Matthew Herbert. Costumes Dinah Collin. Production designer Lars Nielsen. Running time: 1 hour, 48 minutes.At selected theaters.