Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Sacrifice of the Holy Fool

Edward Woodward died on Monday at the age of 79. He had many movie roles, including two authentic classics in Breaker Morant and The Wicker Man, but will be remembered primarily as one of the most prolific British TV actors ever. Most Americans probably remember him best from the 80's TV hit The Equalizer, as a retired secret agent using his deadly skills and barely repressed righteous fury to defend the weak and downtrodden.

To genre fans though, he will always be remembered as Sergeant Neil Howie of the West Highlands Constabulary, stolid, priggish and utterly dedicated to his Christian duty.

The Wicker Man was made in 1973 (For the love of God avoid the disastrous remake starring Nicolas Cage and directed by Neil LaBute, a misogynist hack and the most over-rated film-maker ever.) it tells the tale of a dedicated police officer who comes to a remote Scottish Isle searching for a missing child and discovers mystery, sensuality and a jovial yet sinister population who all seem to be in on a joke that he is left out of.

The joke, of course, is on him.

Despite the delightfully malevolent presence of Christopher Lee as the mysterious Laird of Summerisle and the pulchritudinous unclothed charms of a young Britt Ekland, the movie depends above all on the performance of Edward Woodward.

He doesn't disappoint. The rigidly self-righteous Sgt. Howie shouldn't be as likable as he is with his dour and disapproving Christianity and his quivering tight lipped fury at the sin and debauchery he encounters at every turn on an island where Christianity has long since been supplanted by a much older faith.

Woodward doesn't play Sgt Howie, he becomes him, and after multiple viewings you can still find yourself hoping against hope that he'll get back in his police seaplane and leave the dark mysteries of Summerisle behind. But events unfold with as they must, bringing him inexorably to a windy seaside cliff and his unavoidable destiny.

The movie is a study in bizarre tonal shifts and discordant atmosphere. It's a mystery, a comedy, a horror movie and a character study. Sprightly traditional folk songs contrast with a steadily building menace. Audience expectations are toyed with expertly - particularly via a sudden shift to a traditional action movie chase sequence late in the game that suddenly becomes a cruel jest on both protagonist and audience.

I can't recommend The Wicker Man highly enough. Its a great way to remember an actor's actor who brought a commitment to every role he took inhabiting the skin of baffled angry men with just enough self knowledge to make them tragically flawed icons of victimized everyman.

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