Pascali's Island (1988)


(director/writer: James Dearden; screenwriter: from the novel by Barry Unsworth; cinematographer: Roger Deakins; editor: Edward Marnier; music: Loek Dikker; cast: Helen Mirren (Lydia Neuman), Ben Kingsley (Basil Pascali), Charles Dance (Bowles), George Murcell (Herr Gesing), Sheila Allen (Mrs. Marchant), Stefan Gryff (Izzet Effendi), Nadim Sawalha (Pasha), Kevork Malikyan (Mardosian); Runtime: 104; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producer: Eric Fellner; Artisan Entertainment; 1988)
“Exotically Levantine.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The writer of “Fatal Attraction” James Dearden (“Diversion”/”A Kiss Before Dying”/”Rogue Trader”), in his directorial debut, presents an elegant, well-acted and well-observed drama that involves double crosses and betrayal. Though slow moving and lacking passion, it’s an intelligent thriller that is both lyrical and exotically Levantine. It’s based on the rather complex swindle over an art treasure, that’s adapted by Dearden from the novel by Barry Unsworth.

The middle-aged Basil Pascali (Ben Kingsley) is an ignored Turkish spy, his reports for the last 20 years go unread by the Sultan in Constantinople. The anguished Pascali lives in 1908 on the Turk-occupied, fictional Greek island of Nisi, during the dying days of the Ottoman Empire. There’s a tension among the foreign mercenaries, Greeks and Turkson the island, one that Pascali tries to navigate through in his obsequious manner.

Pascali, in need of money, hires on as an interpreter and go-between for the smoothie phony archaeologist Englishman, Anthony Bowles (Charles Dance), who arrives for an indefinite stay in Nisi. Soon the spy gets involved in con deal matters above his head, as the cunning con man’s schemes turn dangerous as he unearths a priceless bronze statue on the land he illegally leased from the island’s ruling Pasha (Nadim Sawalha).

The vulnerable, long-time self-exiled in Nisi, Viennese artist and best friend of Pascali, Lydia (Helen Mirren), makes the spy jealous by falling for the smug Bowles’s bluster and plans to run away with him after he steals the valuable treasure.As the complicated plot unfolds, the tension mounts for what will happen to the hapless Pascali, as it climaxes with a surprise ending and a number of betrayals.

Too languid and flatly presented to stir the heart, it nevertheless is a sophisticated literary adaption that because of its top-notch acting prevails despite its many drawbacks.