Vogue Australia, 1995
It is one of those perfect tropical days on the verdant island of Pulau Tioman off the east coast of Malaysia. Azure sky, wispy clouds, gentle breeze and shimmering sapphire sea. At the island's Berjaya Tioman Resort the seaside pool is surrounded by sun-worshipping tourists and the golf course busy with golfers. But take a ten-minute jeep ride from the hotel cottages, beyond the golf course and up a steep muddy track, and you are transported to a tropical island that is altogether different.
Here, poised over a pellucid bay, is a wounded paradise from a distant era. Dominating the landscape is a striking, old-fashioned veranda-shaded bungalow, its dim interior furnished with fine leather- bound books and distinguished antique European furniture. In front of the bungalow, and just a little further down the hill that slopes towards the sea, is the Counting House, a neglected-looking timber structure with a murky, cobwebbed interior that serves as a sad remnant of failed enterprise.
Along the shore stand the grey ruins of that enterprise, an abandoned coal mine with a jetty projecting into calm waters. And there, like a mirage on the horizon, is anchored the sailing vessel under the command of convivial Captain Davison, who always goes the long way around to keep an eye on the island's mysterious Swedish resident, Mr Heyst.
Welcome to the set of the film 'Victory', based on the novel by Joseph Conrad. In this tiny bay the year is 1913. A small but stellar cast of actors, headed by Willem Dafoe, Irene Jacob and Sam Neill, along with Rufus Sewell, Graziano Marceiii, Jean Yanne, Ho Yi, Bill Paterson and Simon Callow, has been assembled to breathe life into an epic tale of romance and suspense.
It is mid-October and just over midway through the tight ten-week schedule of the US$40 million English, French and German co-production. The cast is settled for five weeks on Tioman, where Conrad's brooding imaginaryjungle-covered island of Samburan has been artfully re-created by production designer Luciana Arrighi.
At the end of the jetty sits the lanky writer-director, Mark Peploe, brother-in-law of Bernardo Bertolucci and screen writer for two of his films, 'Little Buddha' and 'The Last Emperor', for which he won an Academy Award. 'Victory' marks Peploe's directing debut and his impatience occasionally flares as the crew contends with the unwelcome modern intrusions that spoil a take - a motorboat on the horizon, a revving minibus, a radio. The weather has been a problem. The grey haze caused by fires in Indonesia is playing havoc with the outdoor filming schedule, so on a flawless day there is enormous pressure to complete as much work as possible.
Peploe first read 'Victory' when he was fourteen years old and fell in love with the story at the same time that he was failing in love with cinema. He is by no means the first twentieth-century filmmaker to be attracted to the works of Conrad, the Polish-born writer who spent twenty years travelling the world with the British merchant navy before settling in England, adopting British citizenship and writing a series of extraordinary novels exploring the personal and social destiny of man.
Perhaps the most memorable Conrad-based movie is Francis Ford Coppola's 'Apocalypse Now', inspired by the novel 'Heart of Darkness'. As Peploe explains: "Conrad's writing is extraordinarily visual and structurally cinematic. It represents both the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century."
In 'Victory', Conrad returns to the South-East Asian setting of his early novels and draws from his time as chief mate aboard the Vidar, a Singapore-based steamship that made regular trips through the Malay Archipelago. The novel was first published in England and the US in 1915. Like much of Conrad's work, it contains all the elements of popular adventure: passion, excitement, exoticism. But it is also an unusual, compelling and suspense-filled love story.
Axel Heyst, played by Willem Dafoe, is the reclusive owner of a failed mining adventure on the remote island of Samburan. He lives alone except for a Chinese servant, Wang, played by Hong Kong actor Ho Yi. On a rare visit to the Javanese seaport of Surabaya, Heyst checks into an old colonial hotel where he meets Alma, played by Irene Jacob, a violinist in the seedy Ziangiacomo's All-Women Orchestra. He discovers that Alma is not only a virtual prisoner, tied to a contract she can't get out of, but that Mr Ziangiacomo is planning to "sell" her to Schomberg, the disagreeable German owner of the hotel who has become infatuated with her. Heyst saves the girl and the couple escapes back to Samburan where they become lovers.
Their idyllic existence is interrupted by the unexpected arrival of a trio of villains led by Mr Jones, played by Sam Neill. Heyst and Alma, realising that their uninvited guests have evil intentions, are forced to play a cat-and-mouse game in which their love and ultimately their lives are at stake.
For cast and crew, the five weeks isolated on a tropical island has engendered an unusual sense of camaraderie. Key to harmony is Willem Dafoe's Heyst. Standing for hours at the end of the pier dressed in a cream linen suit and straw hat, playing the scene where Captain Davis picks him up for the boat trip to Surabaya, Dafoe looks remarkably Conradesque. It is a look that remains with him even when he's sitting inside Heyst's bungalow during breaks in filming, attired in T-shirt and cast-off jeans. With his suntanned face, penetrating eyes, long shaggy hair and beard, Dafoe is half ancient mariner, half modern hippie.
Although Dafoe was approached in the past to do films based on Conrad's novels, this is the first project that has reached the filming stage. When he first met Peploe in Paris several years ago, they discussed 'Victory', and after the finances fell into place, Dafoe was the first to sign on.
Dafoe describes the novel as "very rich" and having "played on my imagination". Still, there was little he could do to prepare for the role of the reclusive Heyst, he says, except come to the island, feel the heat and inhabit the house. "I felt that if I came here and let the different things work on me, I could do my pretending and inhabit the scene," the actor explains.
For Dafoe, the psychological underpinnings of the costume drama are entirely modern. "Conrad was specific in the place and characters - he writes with a modern sensibility. Heyst's relationship, his philosophical dilemma, feel very much of this time."
It is a view echoed by twenty- eight-year-old French actor Irene Jacob, tackling the role of the tarnished heroine Alma. Offscreen, the Paris-born Jacob is a delicious concoction of adult sensibilities and girlishness. Raised in Switzerland, she began her film career in 1987 with a role in Louis Malle's acclaimed 'Au Revoir les Enfants'. She is now an art-house star, having won the best actress award at Cannes Film Festival in 1991 for her performance in Kieslowski's 'The Double Life of Veronique' and starring again for Kieslowski in 'Red', the final part of his award-winning 'Three Colours' trilogy.
Sitting on the veranda of Heyst's attap house, dressed in a vintage floral print dress, straw hat and sandals, and holding her well-thumbed paperback copy of 'Victory', Jacob looks like a character straight out of a Maugham short story. "I love to enter someone's universe and slowly make it my own," she declares.
It is obvious that she finds Alma an intriguing character to play. "She is a woman of inner strength who fights against the isolation of Heyst and the reality of war with Mr Jones. She doesn't know what she touches. She has intuitive faith and the ability to recognise good as well as evil." Jacob was also drawn immediately to the character of Heyst. "I see a struggle in this man that is very touching. He has a sense of justice, but such a fear of involvement." Their love, she says, "is a challenge because it is so subtle, with fights, gaps, trust, mistrust. They are together for so short a time. The message is very relevant for today, that it is difficult to love, difficult to trust."
A glimpse of the film's suspense element comes from Sam Neill who, dressed as the elegant but perverted Mr Jones, staggers out of the close confines of the Counting House, where a scene is being shot on an overcast afternoon. Summing up the transformation that occurs when he plays Mr Jones, Neill says he feels himself "morphing into something that slimed out from under a rock."
The forty-seven-year-old actor, who has starred in such enormously successful films as Steven Spielberg's 'Jurassic Park' and Jane Campion's 'The Piano', has only recently completed filming another costume drama half a world away. 'Restoration' was shot in England with a cast that includes Robert Downey, Hugh Grant and Meg Ryan. " I like to vary what I do as much as I can," he says, "both the choice of film and the choice of role. I'm in a very agreeable position in that I am offered a great variety of both. I would hate to feel channelled into a particular type or role."
Neill describes his involvement in 'Victory' as "rather fated". Having read the novel at university, he started talking with Peploe about five years ago. He continues: "Oddly enough, ten years ago I was asked to do the same film, but playing the role of Heyst, by Mike Newell [Four Weddings and a Funeral]."
Then there is the family connection. Neill's grandmother, Gladys Williams, was the niece of the man upon whom Conrad based one of his most famous characters, Lord Jim.
On Tioman, Neill is having "great fun" playing Mr Jones, a character he describes as "deeply unattractive, a psychopath. One of life's great undesirables and there lies the attraction, really. Good people are pretty damn dull to play by comparison."
English actor Rufus Sewell is relishing with equal gusto his role as Mr Jones's menacing, violent ex-sailor secretary, Martin Ricardo. "I have a faint feeling of guilt because I'm enjoying myself so much. There is no pressure to be attractive. I can release the varying degrees of grotesqueness I've been holding in all these years."
Sewell says that he is attracted to the Victory script's mixture of "high seriousness and witty characters" and likens the character of Ricardo to a child. "He has some sweetness in him. He has a capacity in his way for love and devotion. When he meets Alma, he is head over heads in love with her. Yet he is incredibly vicious."
As the weeks on Tioman come to a close, the cast and crew discuss with mixed emotions one of the last scenes to be shot: the burning of Heyst's bungalow. Like some rare, beautiful object, the house has been a kind of focal point where past and present merge in the most romantic and desirable of ways. In fact, as dusk falls, you can almost imagine Joseph Conrad sitting on the veranda, watching with approval the meticulous re-creation of his imaginary world.