Picks and Pans Review: Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence

updated 09/19/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/19/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

David Bowie has appeared previously in three films, all of them on the bizarre side: The Man Who Fell to Earth, Just a Gigolo and The Hunger. This peculiar movie isn't likely to ruin his record. It's a joint Japanese-British production, in which he plays an English officer captured on Java during World War II by the Japanese. He is brought to a prisoner-of-war camp at the edge of the sea, where he displays his defiance and distaste for his captors by eating flowers and pouting. In one scene, he marches up to the head of the camp, Ryuichi Sakamoto (in real life, a famous Japanese singer-composer), and kisses him on the cheek. There is, in fact, a heavy homosexual accent to this film. The director, Nagisa Oshima, one of the most controversial in the Japanese cinema, made the highly erotic In The Realm of the Senses several years ago. But his sensual approach gives this movie an almost lurid quality: What could have been an arresting drama becomes instead a strange dance between captives and captors, done with all the elegance—and stiffness—of a Japanese tea ceremony. The most remarkable performance is by Broadway veteran Tom Conti, who plays with considerable subtlety the Mr. Lawrence of the title, a fellow British prisoner. Sakamoto, too, is effective, displaying a combination of tenderness and maniacal rigidity. But the best moment belongs to Takeshi, who plays the dumb sergeant given to cruel outbursts (a few scenes are very bloody). At the end of the story, when he is about to be executed as a war criminal, he is visited by Conti. The scene is heartbreaking, chilling and the best reason to see the movie, aside from the wonderful soundtrack, which was written by Sakamoto. Too bad the rest of the film is a Bridge Over the River Kwai with shaky superstructure. (R)

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