Besieged is elegantly structured and concisely told. Based on a short story by James Lasdun, it has the feel of a folk tale. The setting is modern, but the characters and their motivations are timeless and cross-cultural.
Before I continue, let me say that if you’re interested already, go see Besieged before reading this or any other reviews. It’s not that the movie centers around a surprise; it’s that the movie’s structure and pace are very part of what’s best about it. Knowing too much beforehand might diminish their impact. Forgive me if the rest of the review is a little vague as I try not to spoil anything.
Shandurai (Thandie Newton) is a medical student who earns her keep as a live-in maid. Originally from Africa (from an unspecified military dictatorship), she is now in Rome.
Her employer is Mr. Kinsky (David Thewlis), a reclusive English pianist who rarely goes out and only teaches a few students. He lives alone (except for Shandurai) in a rich, multistory apartment left to him by his aunt. Antique statues, tapestries, and paintings adorn his lonely home. Amid all the beautiful objects, only the black lacquer grand piano is loved.
Besieged’s setup is subtle. It is elegantly arranged so that after about 15 minutes, all the introductory shots and scenes — from Africa and from Rome — click into place. More exposition might have answered some questions sooner, but Bertolucci’s introduction is cleaner, more succinct, and more forceful.
In this first part, there is an amazing lack of dialogue. Bertolucci sets the scene without explaining it for the camera. Except for some incidental dialogue in Africa, nothing is said until Mr. Kinsky abruptly professes his love for Shandurai.
Kinsky’s announcement is sudden and jarring, both to Shandurai and to the audience. Usually a filmmaker lets you know right away whether a screen couple will end up together or not. But at this point, the characters have barely been introduced, and they have hardly spoken to each other. The first words they share shouldn’t be a desperate proposal of marriage. When Kinsky says he’s never felt this way before, it is easy to believe him. His reclusive lifestyle seems to have deprived him of the emotional maturity and experience that would have helped him control his feelings.
Obviously, Shandurai rebuffs him. And to clearly draw the line for Mr. Kinsky, she tells him that she is married; her husband is an African prison. Bertolucci captures the awkward moment perfectly, using handheld camera, slow motion, and jump cuts. (In fact he uses these techniques throughout the movie to highlight or flit past a moment.) Soon enough, the moment passes and the two never speak of the incident again.
But the words have been spoken and the can’t be called back. Shandurai tries to forget them by looking for another living situation and immersing herself in school. Mr. Kinsky is the perfect gentleman, apologizing once, then acting as though the embarrassing exchange is completely behind them.
While Shandurai studies, Mr. Kinsky starts frequenting the African churches. Soon, small things start disappearing from Mr. Kinsky’s apartment, to the surprise of Shandurai. Very slowly, very gradually, his apartment becomes sparser and sparser. Life goes on, but the opulent setting is becoming more and more humble. Kinsky never explains where the rich adornments go, and Shandurai is afraid to ask.
Our suspicions (and Shandurai’s hopes) are confirmed when she discovers a letter in his wastebasket from her country’s government in Africa....
The story of sacrifice is very simple. So simple, in fact, that it almost sounds like a fairy tale — like a story once told around campfires to extended families.
In fact, Besieged features an African storyteller. He exists outside of the story but appears on-camera at key moments from Shandurai’s life in Africa. Perhaps he is the director’s shadow, because with Besieged, Bertolucci proves himself a great storyteller.
Bertolucci uses the medium of film to its fullest extent. He slows time when a moment has weight, and skims through it when a moment is fleeting. He avoids unnecessary dialogue and shows, rather than tells, when possible. He uses editing to concisely compress time, and to draw thematic parallels between scenes.
The use of music in this film is wonderful. Rich African rhythms and harmonies contrast with the luxurious beauty of Kinsky’s solo piano pieces. The musical contrast echoes the differences between the two main characters. (It’s interesting to note that Kinsky’s music takes on more rhythm and life after he visits the African church.) A single jazz tune in the middle — “My Favorite Things,” appropriately enough — bridges the two styles of music and the two halves of the film.
Finally, and most importantly, Bertolucci keeps the actors in an emotional middle ground, rather than locking them into a strong, fully-explained passion. This leaves room to interpret words or deeds in different ways. Does Kinsky love Shandurai or is he merely infatuated? Does he hope to make her happy or does he hope to win her love? Does she love him, or is she merely grateful? Different answers could leave viewers with completely different ideas about what the movie was about.
That’s not to say that Bertolucci was being vague. Rather, he was acknowledging that when it comes to human behavior, there is usually no single, identifiable motivation.