”I don’t want to bother you much with what happened to me personally,” says Marlow, the narrator of Joseph Conrad’s 1902 novella Heart of Darkness. Certainly this is one of the great false starts in modern literature. For what follows — a long, grim, revelatory journey up the Congo River — has everything to do with what happened to Marlow personally, so much so that his descriptions (full of ”mystery, menace, double-barreled adjectives,” as the critic Hugh Kenner has described them) begin to slide in and out of fantasy and hallucination.
One of the many striking things about the new, television version of Heart of Darkness is that all this inner turmoil of Marlow’s is conveyed through vivid images on the small screen. This triumphant adaptation — easily the best thing director Nicolas Roeg (Don’t Look Now; The Witches) has done in ages — stars Reservoir Dogs‘ Tim Roth as Marlow and John Malkovich as the object of Marlow’s harrowing trip: the mad, powerful, philosophy-spouting ivory trader Kurtz.
Conrad wrote from a simple premise: Marlow is hired by an Belgian trading company to check up on Kurtz, a highly valued employee whose communications with his home office have become sporadic. In Benedict Fitzgerald’s shrewd teleplay, the hokey portentousness near the start of Conrad’s book is captured perfectly by Roth’s voice-over narration, which contains a nasal drip of existential despair: ”I didn’t realize I was not merely headed for the furthest point of navigation, but also the culminating point of my experience.” Roth makes this florid ominousness engrossing; he looks and sounds rather like a turn-of-the-century version of Elvis Costello, his face creased with thoughtful sneers and sullen moroseness.
Marlow tells us the story of his journey in one long flashback, and soon we see why he’s such a carking mope. He makes his dangerous way upriver in a leaky steamboat, a white man taking unsure command of a crew of Africans who resent his scrawny, plundering-Englishman existence. Faced with filming the pages and pages of prose Conrad used in describing Marlow’s voyage — ”perhaps the greatest descriptive passage in English fiction,” literary critic Marvin Mudrick has remarked — Roeg was smart: Much of the time, he does without any narration or dialogue, and just lets us look at slow, languid shots of the steamy, nearly impenetrable jungle.
Over the years numerous filmmakers, most notably Orson Welles, have wanted and failed to bring Heart of Darkness to the screen; Francis Ford Coppola turned the story into a metaphor for the futility of the Vietnam War in his 1979 take on the tale, Apocalypse Now. But Roeg, filming in Belize, doesn’t seem to have approached the material with awe or trepidation; he has made a movie of two men’s disillusionment and ruin that also works as an adventure story.
Everything builds to Marlow’s meeting with Kurtz, who has acquired an almost mystical hold over the locals (”He had the power to charm or frighten rudimentary souls into an aggravated witch-dance in his honor,” writes Conrad) and is given to mumbo-jumbo pronouncements like, ”Think with your entrails as well as your brain — it’s the only way a man may rise to greatness!” Malkovich was born to play Kurtz, whom Conrad writes has a ”lofty frontal bone” on his ”impressively bald” head. With his head shaved and what look like the living-room curtains gathered around his bare shoulders, Malkovich is impeccable. The dignified-psycho manner that Malkovich used so effectively in the recent In the Line of Fire is a match for Kurtz’s serene insanity.
In a typically perverse acting choice, Malkovich almost swallows the story’s most famous words — Kurtz’s death rattle, ”The horror, the horror!” — but it’s also a generous decision, because it throws our attention back to Marlow. When Marlon Brando played a modern Kurtz in Apocalypse, his showy cameo threw off the balance of that film. Here, Roeg and Malkovich keep Kurtz in proportion; he’s the goal of Marlow’s search, but it’s the search itself — ”up that river to a dark place” — and how it turns Marlow from cocky explorer to rattled old salt that remains of central importance. In a recent interview, Roth said of his role, ”By the time I get up there [to Kurtz], I’m as crazy as he is.” Watching this movie, you’ll understand what Roth means. A