12 Films of Christmas: Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence | Film reviews, news & interviews
12 Films of Christmas: Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence
David Bowie and Tom Conti wrestle with honour, identity and the burdens of the past in Japanese POW camp
David Bowie already had a bit of previous with Christmas, of course, after pa-rum-pa-pumpum-ing through the tinsel with Bing back in 1977. He plays a very different kind of drummer boy in Nagisa Oshima’s uneven but oddly haunting 1983 film, in which he stars alongside Tom Conti (last seen in Miranda, of all things) and Ryuichi Sakamoto.
Bowie is Major Jack Celliers, one of four military men, each one trapped in very different ways, in a Japanese POW camp on Java in 1942. While Conti's John Lawrence is the film's moral compass, his rancour laced with decency and respect as he clashes with senior sergeant Hara (Takeshi Kitano), the quietly rebellious Celliers and conflicted Captain Yonoi (Sakamoto) play out a more complex, sublimated game of emotional and physical cat-and-mouse. Much is left unsaid or unexplained, as you might expect from Oshima, director of the infamous In the Realm of the Senses (1976), but the depth of emotional intent cuts through in a film exploring the nature of power, loyalty, honour, ritual and cultural identity, as well as the secrets of the past and the taboo of homosexuality.
The simmering tension comes to a head on Christmas Eve. The climactic kiss Celliers plants on Yonoi – a soldier’s kiss, formal yet freighted with resonance – proves seismic. Later, Yonoi takes a lock of hair from Celliers, who has been buried up to his neck in the unforgiving sun and left to die.
Conti is terrific while Celliers remains Bowie’s most convincing film role alongside Newton in Nic Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth. It’s a far from flawless movie - the mixture of naturalistic Western acting and the overwrought, maxed-up Japanese style is an uneasy one, although that's partly the point - but it casts a dream-like spell which lingers long after the final frame.
Subscribe to theartsdesk.com
Thank you for continuing to read our work on theartsdesk.com. For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 10,000 pieces, we're asking for £2.95 per month or £25 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.
To take an annual subscription now simply click here.
And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a theartsdesk.com gift subscription?
Julian Temple’s flawed Eighties bomb is finally revealed as film which can’t fail to dazzle
Heard but not seen: the Hollywood legend, who has died, tells the inside story of dubbing Natalie Wood in 'West Side Story'
A long-lost world comes stunningly alive again
Mark Rylance lends moments of the sublime to standard issue Spielberg
theartsdesk recommends the half-dozen top movies out now
An ambitious, sparely told tale of 17th-century American terror
Jokes and derring-do in a galaxy far, far away
Greek masculinity is tested in wry, weird maritime comedy
Charlie Kaufman's remarkable animation sheds fresh light on the male midlife crisis
Evocative early-Seventies French drama of sexual discovery confronting traditional values
Adaptation of JG Ballard's dystopian thriller let down by surface brilliance
Mads Mikkelsen in a daring Danish horror-comedy about unhappy families