MOUNTAINS OF THE MOON. Directed by Bob Rafelson; written by William Harrison and Bob Rafelsonn; produced by Daniel Melnick for Tri-Star. Starring Patrick Bergin, Iain Glen and Fiona Shaw. Rated R.
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Mountains of the Moon suffers from the same problem most historical movies have. Since it's impossible to show everything that happened to the characters, we always feel that something's been left out.
The worst movies of this type are nothing but a confusing mess of patchwork from beginning to end. Mountains of the Moon, however, is one of the best. The excellence of its acting, production design and camera work make the somewhat disjointed and episodic nature of its storyline very easy to live with.
The movie spends about half its time in the Africa, half in the England, of the mid-1800s. Its central character is Richard Burton (the writer and explorer, not the actor, played with considerable charisma by Bergin) who lived a life full and varied enough to fill several movies.
Here we concentrate on his efforts to discover the source of the Nile. And it turns out that not all of his difficulties in this quest were encountered in Africa.
Upon returning to England, there's the politics of the scientific community to deal with. The other Englishman in the expedition, John Speke (Glen), claims to have found the source, while Burton disagrees.
Both the difficult adventures in Africa (illness, hostile natives, inhospitable countryside, ancient tribal conflicts) and the occasionally equally hostile environment in England are given superb treatment by the production design and special effects departments. The excellence of this technical side of the picture, plus the unfamiliar faces of the actors, makes Mountains of the Moon seem almost like a documentary.
But the quality of the acting gives it away. These people may be unknowns, but they're anything but untalented. Bergin is especially riveting as Burton, but, then, he has the advantage of being a more likeable figure, with considerably more modern views of everything from sex to ethnocentrism than his Victorian contemporaries.
Glen has the more difficult task of generating sympathy for Speke, who seems to be typical Victorian upper-crust through and through. That we do feel some empathy for him testifies to Glen's acting skill. Shaw is impressive as well as a strong woman character in a male-dominated society who can express both love for her man and an independent spirit.
It's long and often violent, but Mountains of the Moon gives you a lot to think about and to remember.
May 30, 1990
This review is linked on Tim Spalding's Richard Burton website, which contains a lot of information about the explorer, as well as other reviews of this movie.