A sort of minor key film noir glimpsed through sinister tropical shadows, The Intended reveals a twisted heart within post-World War I civilization. A disciple of Dogme 95, Danish director Kristian Levring infuses his tale, co-written with star Janet McTeer, with a sense of raw theatricality very much suited to this tale of lust, murder, and madness.
Subsumed sexuality, soured happiness, seething jealousy, and the occasional detour into insanity are core elements of any decent noir and The Intended is no exception. In 1924, the idealistic Sarah (McTeer) and her younger fiancé Hamish (JJ Feild) arrive at an ivory trading outpost in the Malaysian jungle. Here they discover a repressive tangle of people from whom there is no escape when the river runs dry. Among these is the iron-fisted Mrs. Jones (Brenda Fricker), who oversees the other expatriate employees and native laborers while indulging her semi-infantilized adult son, William (Tony Maudsley), by barely tolerating the erotic relationship he shares with his caretaker, Erina (Olympia Dukakis).
The outpost’s inhabitants dismiss Sarah and Hamish’s visible affection as nonsense and, as the pair becomes acquainted with their neighbors, they discover that, indeed, a metaphorical thread of illicit sexuality binds the village, particularly as William develops a lecherous interest in Sarah, thereby ensnaring the lovers. This poisonous distortion of sex and love—notably embodied by William, on whose actions much of the narrative pivots—drives one member of the camp to commit an unspeakable act that sets off a downward spiral of greed, death and madness.
Though Levring and McTeer craft a tale about the forgiving, determined nature of love in the face of tremendous obstacles, they spike that romantic conceit with a healthy dose of emotional violence. Sarah’s journey is one of harrowing self-discovery’ she starts out flushed with love’s infinite possibilities, and ends up a battered, literal prostitute. Given the increasingly traumatic events that beset her, Sarah has seemingly little choice but to reject her former perceptions of intimacy.
The brutal psychological and emotional violence on display here refers obliquely to the just-ended “War to End All Wars.” Call it mental trench warfare: Sarah and Hamish escape to the jungle to flee depression in England, but they encounter a different brand of depression that becomes an all-consuming madness. Fluid morality, corruption, carnal desires, the rejection of religious salvation: all these trite elements make appearances here. One ugly misstep begets another, especially toward film’s end, as the outpost’s locus of power, long held by Mrs. Jones, begins to shift to William, leaving Sarah and Hamish vulnerable to his machinations.
The film’s primary misstep is that these characters, some of whom experience drastic changes, are not very well defined. While Sarah is given considerable life through McTeer’s performance, scorned lover Hamish, mother from Hell Mrs. Jones, and the corrupt priest (David Bradley) are all predictable types. Even William is just a mama’s boy with a psychosexual obsession that echoes Hamlet.
One could make the argument that the film’s unsurprising themes—the conflation of sexual desire and madness, the crushing mental toll of total isolation, the wounds inflicted by infidelity—might be delivered by ciphers-for-characters, but here the plot twists do little to engage the viewer beyond prurient interest. Gorgeous location photography aside, The Intended brings up juicy, slightly strange topics, only to drop them in favor of more regular melodrama. At bottom, The Intended remains a tragedy about the descent of mankind into madness, enhanced by its handheld verité style, pulling viewers uncomfortably close to this band of humans struggling to survive their surroundings, as well as each other. As the river rises again at film’s conclusion, any hope for starting over has washed away.