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MOVIE REVIEW : Evocation of Empire in ‘The Deceivers’

Times Staff Writer

“The Deceivers” (citywide) is the kind of romantic India picture that Alexander Korda was making 50 years ago. It needs the innocence of the past, when the British felt more pride than guilt in the policies of empire--and when audiences could more easily accept their chiseled Anglo heroes donning dark makeup and passing as natives.

With those H. G. Wells and Sherlock Holmes pastiches, “Time After Time” and the script for “The Seven Percent Solution,” among his credits, director Nicholas Meyer has the right sensibility for “The Deceivers.” However, he’s too reverent in his approach to the screenplay, an adaptation by Michael Hirst of John Masters’ novel about the Englishman who exposed the murderous thuggee cult in 1820s India. He misses opportunities for humor and irony that would have helped keep the film from seeming so old-fashioned.

Pierce Brosnan stars as British officer William Savage, whose exploits are based on the real-life William Sleeman. It is established very self-consciously that Savage, while he may be a resident collector for the British East India Company, is against cruel taxing of the natives and all for building them schools. When he discovers the existence of the thuggees--or deceivers--who worship Kali, the six-armed goddess of destruction, and who strangle and mutilate unwary travelers in ritual fashion, he is determined to infiltrate their ranks.

Brosnan, dashing in his red uniform tunic and gold braid, is unconvincing in native disguise. For “The Deceivers” to really work as a contemporary entertainment, it would have to give us a far deeper sense of Savage’s inner struggle with Kali’s lethal spell. It instead proceeds with the blithe tone of a boy’s adventure--even though it’s far too violent for children.

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The film gets a lift from two veterans of the Indian cinema, Saeed Jaffrey and Shashi Kapoor, who have come to wide international acclaim only recently--Jaffrey as the opportunistic uncle in “My Beautiful Laundrette” and Kapoor as the controversial father in “Sammy and Rosie Get Laid.” Jaffrey is Savage’s vivid, Sancho Panza-like companion, Kapoor the benevolent local rajah. They are actors of such style and personality that they put Brosnan in the shade.

“The Deceivers” (rated PG-13) is not energetic enough for an action picture, and its best elements are a meticulous evocation of period in an exotic locale and a sophisticated awareness and respect for the region’s ways and customs. After all, this beautiful-looking film is a Merchant-Ivory production.


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