It remains a cherished memory, the night I spent with a friend in her apartment in Athens, smoking too many cigarettes and staying up until dawn discussing literature and translation. She had told me over dinner that her final-year thesis at university, where she had been studying English literature, was on the crime writer Agatha Christie. Although I avidly devoured Christie’s novels as an adolescent, I had come to accept the academic consensus that they were uninteresting as literature, and were compromised for a contemporary reader by the stench of racism.
I suggested that maybe Christie’s writing translated better in Greek. My friend argued fiercely that I was mistaken, that the sparseness and directness of crime fiction was not lost in translation. Her argument was that the challenge for a translator was to communicate Christie’s colonialism and very British moralism – “The very things that you,” she said, “as a native English speaker, take for granted.” Then she smiled, puffed hard on her cigarette, and gave me a wink. “Though, of course, you read her as an Australian. Maybe you too have to do a little bit of translation to make sense of her work.”
That long-ago conversation came flooding back when I sat down to watch Régis Roinsard’s new film, The Translators, which is about a group of nine translators who are commissioned to work on the final volume of a crime trilogy, Dedalus, that has been a global bestseller. The publisher Eric Angstrom (Lambert Wilson) has sequestered them in the bunker of a luxurious chateau while they complete their work. Their splendid meals are cooked fresh daily, and they have all they need to drink during their downtime.
However, Angstrom is so fearful that the final novel will be leaked onto the internet that the translators have to give up their phones and laptops, are under the surveillance of guards for the entirety of their contract, and are allowed to work on only 20 pages of the novel at a time. For all Angstrom’s careful planning, parts of the novel do find their way onto the web. He starts receiving texts from a blackmailer who threatens to upload the whole manuscript unless the publishers pay a formidable sum of money. The whodunit becomes which of the nine translators is working with the blackmailer.
For the first 20 minutes I was prepared to offer Roinsard and his fellow scriptwriters, Romain Compingt and Daniel Presley, the benefit of the doubt. On the evidence of this film, Roinsard is the most pedestrian of directors. The introduction of the 10 main characters is efficiently, if unimaginatively, set up.
Most puzzling for a crime thriller that self-consciously poses as a knowing and ironic take on literature and celebrity, there is no attempt to develop a distinct style. The cinematography is flat and dull, and the art direction looks cheap and shoddy. Nevertheless, the premise is so delicious that as a viewer I was prepared to forgive the bland look of the film, eager to see how the mystery was going to play out.
Seven of the translators are from European Union countries, while there is also a Chinese-language and a Russian-language translator. As the nine characters diffidently begin to get to know one another and try to assimilate to their bizarre circumstances, the script teasingly suggests that it will subvert ethnic and linguistic stereotypes, as well as have fun with contemporary anxieties and tensions over globalisation. Very quickly, these thin hopes are disappointed: Roinsard seems to lack even the most basic ability to build tension or suspense. The only way to salvage such a flimsy concept is a script that allows for some wit and playfulness.
The conceit of having the characters locked in together, unable to escape, clearly owes a debt to much of Christie’s work, and in particular two of her most famous books, Murder on the Orient Express and And Then There Were None. Yet the mystery plotting of The Translators is woeful, with information communicated by incessant cutting to flashforwards or flashbacks that attempt to fill the holes in the narrative. With so little care given to the crime elements of the plot, all we can rely on for pleasure are the relationships and conflicts between the characters. But even here The Translators is a let-down. The scriptwriters have put no thought into developing the characters, so the actors have no opportunity to build anything from that shallow initial conception. They remain ethnic stereotypes throughout.
Talented actors such as Wilson, Sidse Babett Knudsen and Riccardo Scamarcio are left floundering. At least with those three, you can see they are desperately trying to salvage some dignity from their roles. The hero of the film is the English translator, played by Alex Lawther, and his performance is atrocious, reliant on slacker tics and superior muggings to the camera that were already dated by the late 1990s.
It seems absurd that a film titled The Translators doesn’t even attempt to have fun with language. We get no insight to the joy that the individual translators find in their craft nor any understanding of how their linguistic heritages influence their reception to the Dedalus trilogy. Although the film’s running time is only 105 minutes, it felt twice as long. The recent Kenneth Branagh-directed Murder on the Orient Express was equally witless, and also equally unfocused and tedious in execution. It’s a lineball call for which is the more awful film.
I raise the Branagh film because I think both films are guilty of arrogance in their work. Branagh and Roinsard are exploiting the conventions of the Christie novel, but believe themselves better than the source material. I think they share that haughty disregard I had in my early 20s, when I argued with my friend.
One of the consequences of that long argument in Athens was that I returned home and picked up Christie’s novels again. There’s a lot of appalling prejudice in Christie, that’s for sure. And inevitably, for a writer who pumped out so much fiction, many of the books are uninspired. But, as I discovered in my re-reading, in her best work – such novels as Five Little Pigs, Evil Under the Sun and Mrs McGinty’s Dead – there is a canny and highly sophisticated understanding of the contradictions and complexities of character. And there is certainly wit.
Christie has been better served by television adaptations than she has by the feature films made of her work. The Translators self-righteously condemns Angstrom for profiting from the work of his writers, and of not understanding the intricacies of the moral universe that the writer of Dedalus has created. But Roinsard and his collaborators are in no position to throw stones.
Watching a bad film, like reading a bad book, is dispiriting. The temptation when it comes to a film such as The Translators is to ignore it. However, I think the smugness of these films needs to be challenged. Roinsard thinks he can sprinkle a bit of hollow anti-capitalism into his movie, half-heartedly nod to the politics of diversity in his casting and have a bet each way on globalisation and the EU. But the result is as vacuous as anything he thinks he’s challenging.
In one excruciatingly written scene, the English and Russian translators bond over a shared admiration for Joyce’s Ulysses. It doesn’t seem to have entered the heads of the scriptwriters that maybe their characters could have argued about literature – perhaps about whether Joyce or Tolstoy was the greater writer. Through such argument and intellectual play, the burgeoning romance between the two characters could be given much-needed dramatic urgency.
The references to great writers are simply preening, and underscore the filmmakers’ cynicism. They think they’re smarter than the genre they’re working in and that they’re smarter than their audience. One can only imagine the fun Christie would have had in caricaturing such pomposity.
The publicity material for the film proclaimed that it was the standout hit of the French Film Festival. Of course it was. It’s arguably a pleasant way to spend an evening, watching some handsome and beautiful faces, without having a single prejudice or belief challenged. The film doesn’t take any risks. I forecast a long life for it on SBS On Demand.
The irony is, of course, that the work that Angstrom is so desperate to protect, and his translators are equally anxious to release into the world, is titled Dedalus. In that still-potent ancient Greek myth, the seeker, Daedalus, created wings so he and his son Icarus could fly like the gods. But Icarus flew too close to the sun and the wax melted, and in horror Daedalus watched his son plummet to earth.
The myth stands as a warning to artists about ambition and risk-taking. Yet watching tepid, safe films such as The Translators is a reminder that there are worse things than wanting to touch the sun.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 19, 2020 as "Witless mystery".
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