If Peter Weir’s THE YEAR OF LIVING DANGEROUSLY is recalled today, it is strictly for the astonishing performance by American actress Linda Hunt as Billy Kwan, a male Eurasian dwarf. Hunt’s gender-bending transformation is an extraordinary achievement anyone coming to the film unaware of the unusual casting would be hard pressed to identify the performer beneath the character. Not surprisingly, Hunt’s bravura work earned her a much-deserved Academy Award while creating a career peak that she never enjoyed again. (She is now being wasted as comedy relief for a dull TV cop show.)
But beyond Hunt’s performance, there is relatively little in THE YEAR OF LIVING DANGEROUSLY to merit consideration. The film is set in the Indonesian capital of Jakarta during its 1965 political tumult, but anyone with no knowledge of Indonesian history will be hard-pressed to figure out what is happening. And don’t think of asking the on-screen Indonesians they’re all in the background as thugs, clowns or whores while the white folks own the movie.
So who’s in the foreground? Well, there’s a young Mel Gibson as an Australian journalist trying to establish his career. It seems that he has an allergy to clothing the film barely goes one reel without Gibson getting out of his shirt. Hunt’s Kwan serves as a demented puppet-master for Gibson, feeding him exclusive interviews with Indonesian political leaders while pushing him into an affair with a British embassy attache played by Sigourney Weaver (who doesn’t sound very British). When they are not making out, they are distracted by such malignant characters as Michael Murphy’s ugly American journalist we know he’s evil because he likes the local prostitutes and Bill Kerr as a pompous British embassy official we you know he’s evil because he yells at an Indonesian bartender for putting ice in his gin and tonic.
For the most part, THE YEAR OF LIVING DANGEROUSLY plays like a B-grade 1950s adventure, with pretty film stars posing against some inexplicable thorny Third World dilemma. In this case, the star chemistry is completely nonexistent Gibson is clearly more in love with the camera than his co-star, while Weaver’s barely concealed indifference helps to make this her worst film performance. As for the political intrigue, there’s also a lot of talk about Communist uprisings and anti-Western posturing, and gunfire breaks out while extras wind up running through the streets. Whether they are escaping the Commies or the Indonesian government is unclear, though I suspect they are trying to get into a better movie.
At least there is Hunt in a wonderfully original creation as the creepy yet pathetic observer/meddler to the madness. Her Kwan is a physical and emotional work of art, and the brilliant depth she provided to the character makes the film tolerable as long as she is on screen. But unless you’re an Oscar completest that needs to see every statuette-winning performance, there’s little reason to experience THE YEAR OF LIVING DANGEROUSLY. If you do seek it out, be prepared for the rare site of an amazing acting achievement in the midst of a dreary dud.