20 May 2008


Dust A Modern, Worthy Western

By Kristin Battestella

If I say my favorite character in The Lord of the Rings is Faramir, the answer I receive isn’t “Oh! I love him, too!” Or “I can’t believe they changed him from the book!” No it’s usually, “Who?” If Faramir is so under appreciated, what does that say for his actor? Beloved Australian actor David Wenham is so little known in the US, I’ve had to search long and hard online for Region 1 DVDs then wait weeks for them to arrive.

Such was the case with Dust. The 2001 western also starring Joseph Fiennes (Shakespeare in Love) was only $6 on Overstock. Cheap and I’ve always loved westerns! Besides, it looked good-and more importantly-was a Region 1 release. Three weeks later, when at last the DVD was out of the mailer and into my laptop, my first shock was that it wasn’t a tale of the Australian west. This is the American west, yet it takes place is contemporary New York City. Stay with me!

We open with Edge (Adrian Lester) a down on his luck hood who’s breaking into someone’s apartment. The crone inside (Rosemary Murphy) however is much more than Edge bargained for. The feisty old woman holds Edge at gunpoint and tells him a story. If Edge wants her wealth and hidden gold-he is going to listen to Angela’s tale of the old west. When cowboy brothers Luke (David Wenham) and Elijah (Joseph Fiennes) both fall for Lilith (Anne Brochet) trouble brews. Seeking thrill and adventure, Luke travels to Turkey and becomes a mercenary in the Ottoman War-ever trying to escape gospel sprouting Elijah.

Both storylines presented by director Milcho Manchevski (Before The Rain) seem simple and overplayed at face value. Young black guy and white old woman bond over feuding cowboy brother love story. Yadda, yadda, yadda. Strange it is, though, that these two types of stories are together in one film. The flashbacks, humor, and characters break the time and place divides between them, and the action moves seamlessly between events. It seems almost absurd to start, but once belief is suspended, you become invested in the characters. You simply must see how these stories conclude.

Naturally you can’t go along with people you don’t like. David Wenham’s Luke is the main character of the film, yet his dialogue is next to nothing. Strangely Joseph Fiennes is billed first even though he’s only a handful of critical scenes. In most cases, Crone’s narration speaks for them both. Occasionally annoying as narrators are, Angela’s voiceover here makes her own storyline better-and it saves us from Wenham’s odd American accent. He tries, but it’s somehow off; a mix between Southern, Texan, and set back one hundred years. Wenham, however, excels in facial expressions, and his non-vocal performance speaks more than most. Not just in looks and glares, but physically Wenham takes on the rough cowboy bumps and bruises and pains. You look at Luke and just know that had to hurt. Wenham’s heart and soul is onscreen, and regardless of what you’ve seen him in previously he is Luke here.

Pleasantly surprising in Dust is Adrian Lester (Hustle) as Edge. He excels beyond his witty dialogue and sarcastic remarks. I must admit I know nothing of him, but his banter with ‘Crone’-the nickname he gives Angela, the physical action and pain, he's a great tough guy mixed with despair. It’s not tough to see how the parallels between Edge and Luke come about. Both characters end up different from where they started. The relationships between Luke and Lilith and Edge and Angela do not take the traditional road. It’s odd that Dust was hyped as a western romance on the cover when in fact very little romance or Old West action takes place. Am I complaining? No.

One sore spot in Dust is Joseph Fiennes. His work prior in Shakespeare in Love and Enemy at the Gates has not impressed me, nor has he here. Where his real life brother Ralph Fiennes takes on varied roles and genres (The English Patient, Red Dragon, Harry Potter), Joseph seems to play the same one dimensional character over and over. Elijah is supposed to be a God fearing wronged husband with a vendetta against his brother, but we don’t see that in what little we see of him. With a different angle on the script from Manchveski, Dust could very well be Elijah’s movie. As it stands, Elijah is the very definition of a supporting character-merely reacting to Luke’s courses of action.

On the other hand, Dust’s small supporting cast does a fine job; The crooked cops chasing Edge, the Ottoman mercenaries and army leaders on both sides. They look the part. Anne Brochet is pretty run of the mill as Lilith, but Nikolina Kujaca’s portrayal of the pregnant guerilla wife Neda is beautiful, exotic, graceful, and poised.

Dust brings to light an obscure part of history for me. Truly, had I known the movie was more about the Ottoman wars, I might not have tuned in. The Old West scenes are standard and brief enough, but they serve their purpose. Where Dust really sells itself is in the contemporary New York abode of Edge and Angela. It’s odd to say, but the New York City captured in Dust no longer exists-the pre September 11th city. Today we like to paint New York as a new and rebuilt, revitalizing the American Way! Dust, however, captures what many New Jersey folk like myself thought of New York pre 9/11; Dirty, dark, heinous violence and crime. Edge is every bit a child of his society, as Angela is hers. We want to see her pass the torch to him before it is too late. We want Edge-the violent offender in the film’s opening scene-to make it. The storylines come through and circle together. I suspect it’s where the title comes from; ashes to ashes, dust to dust. And hey, while I’m on a sappy note, Dust does offer a few handsome shots of the World Trade Center.

Dust’s European scenes were filmed on location, and Manchveski succeeds in setting up his exotic locales and foreign conflicts. The action is unfortunately a bit confusing sometimes. When we first meet our friends and foes in Turkey, it’s tough to tell who is who. Perhaps a few characterizations are not politically correct today, but it’s a movie dramatizing a specific time, and Edge’s commentary on the past events keeps things light hearted. Manchveski’s interview and behind the scenes features on the DVD also shed light on the story, characters, and locales; Seeing his thoughts and philosophies add to this unusual tale. Unfortunately, there’s not much else to supplement the DVD, but with a film such as Dust-where performance and story are more important than action-there isn’t much to add. Dust speaks for itself-no extras needed.

I’ve seen far more avant-garde films, but fans of the offbeat, period piece, or artsy film should pick up Dust at the first chance you can get. The violence and sexual situations are not meant for children, and guys looking for chicks won’t find them here. David Wenham fans have no doubt already discovered this movie, but for American audiences looking for a film with substance, Dust is a must see.

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