A hack through the jungle of Conrad's prose

7th February 1997 at 00:00
Nostromo BBC2, Saturdays, 9.30-10.45pm, February 1-22

It's ironic that the film version of Nostromo, Joseph Conrad's epic about the corrupting effect of greed, should itself have been such a mammoth enterprise. Taking 10 years to complete and costing #163;10 million (twice as much as Middlemarch), it was shot in hazardous conditions in Colombia using no less than 15, 000 extras. Here's one frock flick which spent more on locations than costumes.

First published in 1904, Conrad's Nostromo is one of the greatest, if least frequently read, of 20th-century classics. Told through the eyes of different characters - in a series of flashbacks within flashbacks - it's the story of Charles Gould, an Englishman who brings Emilia, his wife, to South America and reclaims the silver mine that ruined his father. Then, as revolution erupts, Gould tries to smuggle his silver out of the country with the help of Nostromo, an Italian sailor.

Not only is the book epic in scope, with its large cast of characters and numerous political upheavals, it makes rather a strange choice for a film. A bleak tale, it's basically a study in futility, rather than an engaging costume drama.

Since many students find Conrad's convoluted style hard to follow, the greatest virtue of the BBC version is that it tells the story simply.

After struggling with Conrad's complicated time shifts, it makes a change to follow the events from beginning to end. Nostromo's tie-in - published by Oxford University Press - also has a detailed chronology.

But since this leviathan lasts for four 85-minute episodes, the pace is slow, as if the scriptwriter John Hale was hacking his way through the jungle of Conrad's prose, pausing every now and then to let director Alastair Reid shoot some spectacular views of the Colombian countryside. But lush vegetation is a poor substitute for a tight plot.

While a literal retelling of the story has the advantage of clarity, it tends to miss much of Conrad's symbolism. When it does get symbolic, the film is merely clumsy - the sex scene between Gould and Emilia in the silver mine is presumably meant to suggest that Gould's obsession with riches is what turns him on. In the book, his greed makes him impotent.

What the film misses is Conrad's irony. At one point in the novel, Gould and Emilia talk about a "paradise of snakes", implying that the exploitation of the silver mine is a Faustian bargain which bodes ill. But while there are snakes galore in the film - along with lots of other tropical flora and fauna - Conrad's ironies stay hidden deep in the rainforest.

If Nostromo - made with Italian, Spanish and American state television - has a grand feel, it lacks focus. A huge international cast means a mix of acting styles, with some of the cast barely acting at all. So while everyone manages to look convincingly uncomfortable in Colombia's 100 per cent humidity, only Albert Finney - as the old soak Dr Monygham - is really worth watching.

Just as Conrad's ex-pats never quite come to grips with South America, so the BBC team were similarly cack-handed. After filming was over, BBC producer Michael Wearing left the set as a gift to the local people, suggesting that they open a bistro on it. But they dismantled it and used it for building material instead. And local television was not slow to note the connection between a work about imperialism and obliterating a huge swathe of rainforest to accommodate the film set.

Despite its drawbacks, Nostromo will be useful as background material for students studying the book as a set text.

At its end - when Gould surveys his mine under newly-installed electric light - actor Colin Firth manages a troubled look that seems to prophesy that the events of the film are doomed to be repeated during the coming century. Conrad might well have agreed.

A BBC video of Nostromo (320 minutes) costs #163;19.99, tel 01733 232800.

A special edition of the book is published by World's Classics, OUP, #163;4.99

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