April 21, 2010

For The Love of Peter O'Toole: The Last Emperor

Film: The Last Emperor (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1987)
Role: Reginald Johnston

The Last Emperor is not a Peter O'Toole film. He has a very small part as the Scottish tutor of the titular emperor when he is a boy. The film is an epic, spanning seven decades of Chinese history, from the turn of the century mysticism of a China still inured in ancient traditions to the country's mid-century Maoism. In the middle of it all is the last emperor Pu Yi (played as an adult by John Lone) who ascends the thrown as a boy of three, becomes a prisoner in his own Forbidden City and is later sent to a Siberian work camp by the new Communist regime.

Although this true story is truly remarkable, the film's scripting and Lone's acting leave much to be desired. There's nothing more disappointing than a biopic of extraordinary content that falls flat in translating that story to the screen. However, these elements that would normally sink a film are small matters in light of the extraordinarily intricate, detailed, and sumptuous world created by Bertolucci. Every frame of this film is like a painting. The beauty and artistry of the production design is truly something to behold. The costuming and set design are really remarkable in their fidelity to period detail. At points, the sheer beauty of the film overwhelms its story but at some point, the viewer just has to give in to it and enjoy.

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