The Quiet American


Directed by: Phillip Noyce
Written by:Christopher Hampton, Robert Schenkkan
Starring: Michael Caine, Brendan Fraser, Do Thi Hai Yen, Rade Serbedzija, Tzi Ma, Robert Stanton
Released: January 16, 2003
Grade: A+

There are two stories in The Quiet American and both are told with uncompromising honesty and precision.  The depth of characters is evident and the essence of Graham Greene’s novel (upon which the film is based) has been retained.

Set in Vietnam 1952, Thomas Fowler (Caine) is a journalist for the London times who reports on Vietnam’s plight to be liberated from France.  He enjoys his work but seems more interested in his much younger mistress, Phuong (Hai Yen).  Fowler wants to take Phuong back to London when he completes his time in Vietnam but his wife, waiting back in London, is refusing to give a divorce.  Phuong’s sister sees there’s no hope in their relationship and begs for her to find a younger, more eligible man.

Alden Pyle (Fraser) then arrives as an aid worker from America.  He meets Fowler at a cafe and the two become friends and draw from each other’s experiences.  But Pyle too has become smitten by Phuong and is not afraid to hide his affections.  The softly-spoken Fowler is having his world shaken.  He get a call from the London office asking him to return home, a letter from his wife refusing a divorce once and for all, and a close friend is walking off with his true love.

In a last ditched bid to stay in Vietnam, Fowler gets word of trouble in the north.  Using his experience to uncover this story, he hopes London will grant him an extension of time to stay (and fight for Phuong).  They allow his request but Phuong will become, at least momentarily, a lesser priority as Fowler’s realises the importance of the story he is exposing.  Trouble is brewing in Vietnam...

The Quiet American is actually the first mainstream Hollywood film to be shot in Vietnam.  Directed by Australian Phillip Noyce (Rabbit-Proof Fence), it immaculately captures the setting and feeling of the time.  Michael Caine digs deep and delivers a career-defining performance which already has everyone talking.  The underrated Brendan Fraser will admit to making a lot of garbage, but as both this film and Gods And Monsters showed, he can pull it out when he has to.

Bottom line, it’s great storytelling.  The love triangle between Fowler, Pyle and Phuong is unconventional yet seems more realistic.  The destinies of these characters are not trivialised by a typically drawn-out ending.  Importantly, it doesn’t preach nor praise any actions of Americans.  In fact, there’s very little that’s “Hollywood” about The Quiet American and therein lies the appeal.

The film is lucky to have been released.  Financed by Miramax, studio head Harvey Weinstein didn’t feel appropriate to release the film so soon after the September 11 terrorist bombings.  Having seen the film, Weinstein should be institutionalised for coming to such a conclusion.  After lobbying from Noyce, Weinstein backed down but was aiming for an early 2003 release date so it wouldn’t clash with other Miramax Oscar contenders such as Gangs Of New York and Chicago.  Sigh.  Critics then intervened.  Columnist Jeffrey Wells saw the film and launched a huge campaign for it to be released in time for the Academy Awards.  Miramax finally conceded, the film has been released, and regardless of whether Oscar glory awaits, at least people now have the opportunity to see a very important film.

One of the most engrossing films of the season, one should be anything but “quiet” about spreading the word for The Quiet American.  Powerful.