One of the more spectacular misfires of recent years, "Land of the Blind's" lack of originality is only slightly exceeded by its failure to work as political satire. Perhaps this tale of dictators and revolution looked better on paper, when stars Ralph Fiennes and Donald Sutherland came on board, but it's hard to see how the jumbled reasoning and tasteless jokes could have escaped notice. The question is not whether American helmer Robert Edwards' feature debut gets a release, but how long it can withstand critical onslaught.
From the very start, the pic borrows elements from other sources thick and fast. A B&W newsreel sets the scene, describing the succession of a brutal dictator (heavily modeled on Soviet-style leaders) by his son, Maximilian II (Tom Hollander).
From his jail cell, Joe (Ralph Fiennes) narrates the tale, beginning in the Orwellian-sounding "Year Minus 5" when he was a security guard assigned to watch the country's most dangerous political prisoner, playwright-turned-terrorist Thorne (Donald Sutherland).
Despite Thorne's daily habit of using his own feces to write slogans on the walls, his seductive intelligence leads Joe to question whether Maximilian II really is good for the country.
To rob Thorne of his martyr's status, Max releases him. But while the leader and his wife Josephine (Lara Flynn Boyle, combining Evita with Lady Macbeth) engage in kinky sex involving diapers and plastic, Thorne effects a palace coup with Joe's assistance.
The new regime, however, turns out to be every bit as repressive as the old. Thorne institutes a Khmer Rouge-type revolution complete with re-education camps, forcing women into burqas and reversing traffic light signals so red now means "go."
Joe refuses to sign an oath of allegiance, and is thrown into prison.
Over-the-top barely describes the scenes involving Maximilian, whose obsession with action movies parallels North Korea's leader Kim Jong-il. In tone more suggestive of a bad sitcom than a fascist dictatorship, it's anyone's guess why Edwards includes a scene of Max taking a dump on a throne-like toilet.
Apparently Edwards, who directed docus after leaving army life, decided to use all of his ideas in one film, without thinking through their meaning or relevance, relegating what's meant to be a sharp satire into a gummy-mouthed exercise in pedantry. Most plundered is "1984," including the book's Room 101, here changed to Room 12, but equally dreaded.
"Name that reference" becomes a piece of cake, including the death of Marat and an especially egregious, and hollow, comparison with Rudolf Hess and Spandau prison.
In a bumper year for Fiennes, one misfire won't make a difference. Judging by his over-serious tone and earnest delivery, the actor apparently thought he was in another pic entirely and, considering the multiplicity of films trapped in these 101 minutes, he can't be blamed.
Sutherland plays Thorne like he's John the Baptist morphing into Jesus, while Hollander and Boyle leave no piece of the palace unchewed.
Visuals are unremarkable, though the art department's mingling of period styles -- 1940s hair, 1950s TVs, 2006 references -- is but one of many head-scratching decisions, including the use of music, which cuts off the tunes just as they're building.
Print screened in Rotterdam was waiting final post-prod tinkering, including some digital cleanup.
Camera (color/B&W, widescreen), Emmanuel Kadosh; editor, Ferne Pearlstein; music, Simon White, Guy Farley, Doug Edwards; production designer, Mark Larkin; art director, Mike Stallion; costume designer, Phoebe De Gaye; sound (Dolby Digital), Samir Foco, Srdjan Kurpjel; associate producers, Ferne Pearlstein, Hugh Spurling; assistant director, Ben Hughes; casting, Daniel Hubbard. Reviewed at Rotterdam Film Festival (competing), Feb. 2, 2006. (Also in Human Rights Watch, London.) Running time: 101 MIN.
With: Ron Cook, Robert Daws, Laura Fraser, Jonathan Hyde, Camilla Rutherford, Don Warrington, Miranda Raison, Nigel Whitmey, Leigh Zimmerman.