Thursday 25 July 2019

Dark Eyes Retrovision #18: Don't Look Now (UK 1973: Dir Nicolas Roeg)

Nic Roeg's 1973 film, just a few years shy of its 50th anniversary, is these days popularly seen as a) the most straightforward of the director's features and b) a pivotal film in marking the transition of British cinema from its more linear storytelling roots to something temporally experimental, aligning its narrative more to the psychology of memory than to the accepted beginning-middle-end story format.

Studiocanal's 4K and Ultra HD restoration of Don't Look Now is a chance to re-evaluate a movie which, since its initial theatrical release (poorly publicised and put out on a double bill with a rather truncated early version of The Wicker Man), has slowly gained in critical stature, and which now regularly features in 'Best of' British' film lists.

Adapted from a short story by Daphne Du Maurier published in 1971, Roeg's film, from a script by Allan Scott and Chris Bryant, opens out the original text considerably, using it as a jumping off point for a complex narrative and visual story where the supernatural is often glimpsed but never fully brought into focus, and whose themes are suffused in a masterclass of interlocking edits.

John Baxter (Donald Sutherland) and his wife Laura (Julie Christie) have travelled to Venice following an appalling tragedy whereby their daughter Christine has drowned in a pond outside their English country home. John has been asked to oversee the rebuilding of one of the City's churches, and the couple hope that the change of scene will help them overcome their grief. Laura's chance meeting with a pair of English women, one of whom is a blind psychic, sows the seeds of a belief that Christine is still with her parents in spirit: John, initially sceptical of this revelation, questions his own lack of faith when he glimpses a small figure, dressed in a red raincoat (similar to the outfit that Christine was wearing when she drowned) walking at a distance in the Venetian alleyways. Against a backdrop of a series of murders in the city, and the subsequent attentions of the police who believe that John could be a suspect, he continues to track down the mysterious figure and in turn presages his own doom.

Watching the movie after a gap of quite a few years, what's even more apparent now is the whiff (actually more than that) of Oedipal Greek tragedy to the piece, with its almost inevitable conclusion, and its causative circularity of events drawing the central male character to his own fate. From the opening scene, with John poring over slides of the church he is to renovate and seeing (or not seeing) a hooded red figure sitting in one of the pews, his destiny is set. The ending may seem a little jarring in relation to the lyrical tone of the rest of the film, but Roeg was no stranger to such juxtapositions: the suicide of the father and the death of the indigenous young man in Walkabout (1970); Newton's reveal of his alien self in The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976); or the witches peeling off their human coverings in his adaptation of Roald Dahl's The Witches (1990).

In one of the disc's extras, it's learned that Roeg and Anthony Richmond, Don't Look Now's director of photography, roomed together during the making of the film, and talked of little else during their stay. This close relationship plays out in the harmony of narrative and visuals, the camera adopting an almost reportage-y style, picking out incidences of everyday Venetian life that Sutherland, in his role of John Baxter, would have glimpsed through his constantly darting eyes, as if always just sensing something out of the corner of his vision.

Sutherland and Christie are of course perfect in their roles, a contrast of characters and belief systems, united in grief and brought together as much by the hope engendered by the psychic as the city itself, whose decaying beauty frames the couple's air of tragedy. Don't Look Now may be a film more to admire than love (and maybe that's just me) but it's as jarring today as on first release, and well worth another view in this superb restoration.

Don't Look Now is out on 29 July 2019. Extras include an audio commentary with Nicolas Roeg, two new documentaries on the history of the film and its colour palette, and a host of interviews from a previous release of the movie including composer Pino Donaggio, screenwriter/producer Allan Scott, director of cinematography Tony Richmond and Donald Sutherland.


  1. Fantastic stuff David, you make me want to revisit the film again. Those juxtapositions of Roeg's still astonish me all these years later - the shot of the father on fire in Walkabout, the hoodlums wearing football helmets in Man Who Fell To Earth - small details that disturb the universe. I recently sat down about with Eureka and I'd forgotten how jagged and non-linear that film is, it's so aggressive about it, it feels like a serrated blade. An extraordinary film maker. Very pleased to hear the restoration is worthy.

  2. Thanks Wes. DLN is a film I initially encountered too early in life. Like most of Roeg's work it's an intensely adult film and (I think) requires a few years on the clock to really appreciate it - this time round it was the scenes with the Baxters living their everyday life through grief that really got to me. Laura's impassioned plea to her husband to believe after encountering the psychic is heartbreaking.