While people have a number of different reasons for holding whatever opinions they have on director Roman Polanski, something that isn't mentioned enough is the simple fact that he has never equalled his cinematic output of the 1960s and 1970s. That's not to say that he hasn't made some very good films in more recent decades, but they're certainly not his best, and some are perhaps given a bit more leeway because of his name being attached to them. The Ninth Gate is one of those lesser films, and you can still find many people who champion it as a fine modern horror movie . . . which I think proves my point.
Johnny Depp plays Dean Corso, a rare book dealer who is hired by Boris Balkan (Frank Langella) to locate and check over copies of a book that supposedly gives the reader the chance to summon the devil. This job leads to Corso crossing paths with Liana Telfer (Lena Olin) and Baroness Kessler (Barbara Jefford), two women who may be in possession of the valuable texts. It also leads to him encountering a mysterious woman (Emmanuelle Seigner) who may want to help him, but could easily be seeking to frustrate his ongoing attempt to complete his task. The more that Corso investigates the book, the more he starts to see things that become harder to explain rationally.
Adapted from a novel, 'El Club Dumas', by Arturo Pérez-Reverte, The Ninth Gate has a screenplay by Polanski, John Brownjohn (who collaborated with the director on 4 or 5 movies), and Enrique Urbizu, that feels exactly in line with what Polanski wants to deliver. It's another one of his films that walks a tightrope in between horror and comedy, but that tightrope-walk is something that Polanski managed much more successfully in many of his earlier movies. Give me the inspired madness of The Tenant or Cul-de-sac. Please don't give me something else that reminds me of the ridiculous Bitter Moon.
Depp is fine in the main role, although he plays a character so unflappable that the third act fails to provide any real tension, but there are a few treats to be had in the supporting cast. Langella is his usual formidable presence, and plays his part with an admirably straight face. Olin does well, up to a point, but the screenplay sets out to make her character very silly by the time she is given a more active role in the second half of the film. Jefford is excellent, helped by the fact that she seems to be more savvy to what is really going on, and she doesn't seem to be as easily manipulated as other people in the movie. Seigner does what is asked of her, and I won't waste time being too rude about her appalling inability to give anything close to a decent performance. There's a good reason that her biggest movie roles seem to have been in movie directed by Polanski AKA her husband.
There's a decent score from Wojciech Kilar, some shots look nice enough (I guess), but there aren’t many more compliments I can give it. I will begrudgingly admit that one or two moments of humour work, especially one moment in which a character essentially berates a group of satanic cult members as nothing more than ignorant cosplayers, but that’s a rare moment that works in a movie that runs for just over two hours. If this wasn’t directed by Polanski, it would have been series and dismissed immediately, and completely forgotten by now.
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