It’s been 27 years since it’s original release but few films since have come close to generating the inescapable tension that Director Nicholas Roeg creates in Don’t Look Now. It is a supernatural thriller with elements of murder mystery and horror thrown in to the mix and ironically, you really can’t look away for a second. The desolate mood and drab Venetian waterways lure you in and leave you constantly on edge.
The film starts as it means to go on. The opening scene is set in the grounds of an English Country estate where a young girl in a shiny red mac plays with her ball dangerously close to a lake, is a master class in dramatic tension. Roeg cuts back and forth between images of the child sizing up the lake after her ball accidentally falls into it and a married couple indoors going about their business blissfully unaware of any danger. Suddenly, something causes the husband to look up and sensing the worst, he races outside to find his daughter submerged and lifeless in the water. It is almost unbearable to watch at times as the whole sad scene accelerates towards its inevitable conclusion.
The story then cuts to the married couple, John and Laura (Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie), in Venice, both still riddled with grief and desperately trying to carry on with their lives despite the horrendous loss. When they run into a couple of elderly English ladies, one of whom is blind and claims to possess physic powers, things begin to taken on an even more sinister tone. Laura begins to put faith in the blind lady’s abilities and takes great comfort in being told that her daughter is happy and at peace. The ladies also reveal that John himself has psychic abilities, even if he doesn’t know it yet. Does this explain his sudden realization of danger at the films outset? In a later séance with the two ladies, the daughter apparently warns John to leave Venice as he is in danger. An eerie foreboding of what is to come.
After they learn their son has been injured back home in an accident at school (it never rains but it pours for this family), Laura decides to fly home immediately, leaving John alone in Venice. Later that day, John sees a funeral boat pass by with the two old ladies and someone who he thinks is his wife. This sends his paranoia into over drive and he begins to sense danger around every corner and fears for his wife’s safety. He reports his suspicions of his wife’s abduction to the local police and begins to desperately search for her. Eventually though, he speaks to his son’s school back home in England, and they put him on to his wife. She was back in England after all. So who was it he saw on that funeral boat the previous day? On top of all this, John keeps glimpsing a small figure in a red coat similar to that which his daughter drowned in around the various alleyways of Venice. As the tension is ratcheted up, we begin to question whether the blind psychic is telling the truth, whether John is in danger from an unseen threat and just what this strange red figure may actually be.
Director Nicholas Roeg’s style is vital to the great success of Don’t Look Now. The washed out colour pallet and the dreary visuals only amplify the bleakness that surrounds John. The director also recognises that sometimes less is more and opts for slow-building tension and the allusion to the supernatural rather than splatters of gore or cheap scares. Roeg’s use of recurring themes such as the colour red (stemming from John’s daughter’s jacket) and water (the lake she drowned in) also add to the sense of impending sense of doom and emphasises how John is struggling to let go of the past and is constantly surrounded by haunting reminders.
The city of Venice itself plays a vital part in the film’s success. This unique city is typically portrayed as a romantic idyll full of vibrancy and beauty in most TV and film appearances. In Roeg’s film however, we see the drab underbelly of the city with its murky backstreets and foggy waterways becoming incredibly constrictive when John and Laura get lost. The distinct lack of bustling crowds also suggests a cold and unwelcoming city, which only goes to increase the ennui surrounding the central couple.
Above all, Don’t Look Now is about a husband and wife who love each other deeply, but have very different ways of dealing with the loss of their daughter and the grief they both feel. Laura opens herself up to the supernatural in order to give herself comfort, but John’s cold hard realism won’t allow him to accept the advice given by the mysterious blind woman. It is his inability to get over the terrible accident and his desire for logical answers which prompts him to chase after the mysterious figure in red that we see skipping through secluded alleyways. Will this figure finally offer him an answer that he can accept? Will they offer him a degree of closure? The consequence of him finally catching up with the red figure is a truly shocking moment that will linger with you long after the movie has finished.
Don’t Look Now is a legendary film that more than deserves its reputation. If you haven’t seen it already, seek it out right away.
Don’t Look Now is released on blu-ray 4th July 2011.
Director: Nicolas Roeg
Stars: Julie Christie, Donald Sutherland, Hilary Mason
Runtime: 110 min
Country: UK, Italy