John Boorman's early film work is always audacious & bold, grappling with ideas that other filmmakers either avoid altogether or else tentatively approach in formulaic ways. But it can also get a little out of hand at times -- not necessarily a bad or fatal thing, but some viewers may be put off & choose not to stick around for the rest of the film.
That would be a pity, as this nearly forgotten film from 1970 is a marvel. Sometimes an indulgent & slightly muddled marvel, it's true, but still very much worth seeing.
The plot: Leo is the attenuated heir of obscure nobility, reduced to living a shadow of a life in his decaying mansion. He observes the rest of the street, which is poverty-stricken, sometimes violent, but always vibrantly alive. In fact many of the early scenes are from the POV of his telescope or binoculars, darting from one individual to another, concentrating more often on birds than on human beings. He seems a decent but vague, sad vestige of a man, playing out his part according to the rules & advice (i.e., commands) of his servants & sycophants -- all of whom control his life more than he realizes.
These first scenes have a surreal, absurdist tone, offered in fragments of bizarre imagery & overlapping snippets of dialogue & literary quotes -- here's where some viewers may jump ship. But these scenes have a cumulative power, offering a fierce, scathing, ugly portrait of decadent wealth & power, obviously a relic of the past, desperately clinging to ruthless illusions, animalistic beneath its civilized veneer.
Leo's innate decency proves stronger than all of that, however. Slowly he emerges from his shell of a life, involving himself in the marginal lives of the street outside his ornate windows. He's naive, unsure of himself ... but his conscience & determination to do the right thing both grow with each day. He's outraged by the injustice he sees, and eventually risks his own life to save the life of a young woman about to descend into prostitution for survival. This puts him in direct conflict with the true powers that be of his world.
And here's where the story really gets interesting. Along with Leo, we learn the truth about the street & those who profit from its misery. At this point the story truly takes on allegorical meaning: it may have been filmed in London, but it's set in The City, which could be anywhere on earth. The dialogue & action become more rhetorical, more flamboyant. What we're seeing is the revolutionary zeitgeist of 1970, the hunger for freedom & justice, the necessity of tearing down the ancien regime grown cruel & rotten beyond redemption. It's a message that resonates today in 2012!
The question is, how will the struggle be resolved? I don't want to give away the ending, which has two possibilities: defeat or breakthrough. I will say that as the credits roll, we're left with much food for thought, as well as the memory of an exhilarating film experience -- our final glimpse of Leo says it all -- highly recommended!