Friday, 3 June 2016

Half Moon Street (1986)

"I need the money, and I happen to like uncomplicated sex"

Poor Dr Lauren Slaughter. She may be an intelligent, globe trotting and independent young American woman with a PHD, but life is tough. She lives in a squalid flat in London's Notting Hill with a faulty shower and no hot water because her weekly wage just doesn't go far enough. She works at a Middle Eastern Institute where her colleagues are mainly men with private incomes and she learns to her dismay that her superiors are passing her over for prestigious work because of her gender, as well as passing her research off as their own. Pretty soon she decides enough is enough. She simply has to do something.

That something is an unlikely moonlighting job as a high class escort. 

Half Moon Street is based on Dr Slaughter, a 1984 novel by Paul Theroux. Now, I haven't read that novel but whilst I would hope that it displays a bit more intelligence and insight than this turkey, I'm not going to be putting any money on it.

Sigourney Weaver is totally adrift as one of cinema's most irritating characters; a woman who, to all intents and purposes, is supposed to be extremely intelligent and quite a feminist (she can't believe she's asked to withdraw with the ladies immediately after dinner to leave the men to their port and cigars), yet who nevertheless demeans herself as a prostitute to the wealthy and lonely of London. But wait, it's OK, because she actually approaches each 'date' as dinner only. She's independent enough to decide for herself whether she beds them later.

Phew that's a relief then isn't it?

The script keeps telling us she's an extremely clever and articulate young woman too, without actually showing any of those characteristics. Silly Dr Slaughter actually seems put out when her 'dates' decide not to enter into political or cultural debates or serious conversations with her, seemingly forgetting they're paying for her unquestionable beauty (and Weaver really does look divine here) and body, rather than her mighty brain and the finger she keeps on the pulse of global affairs. Whoops, bad move guys, no intercourse for you tonight - just the main course.

One person she does feel she can properly talk to is Michael Caine's Lord Bulbeck who is, rather conveniently, a Middle Eastern peace envoy. We know she can talk properly to him because when he recites a line of TS Eliot, she replies with the next line. He also cooks her omelettes, which is nice, whilst telling her to be careful in her chosen profession, which is nicer, but equally dumb, given he's a consumer of her service. Her retort to his concerns is indicative of the lousy dialogue the actors have to speak "I have a gynecologist who's teaching me karate" But there's worse lines even than that, such as Slaughter's despairing cry at her friendly black neighbour (who wanders in whilst she's perched bare monkey ass nekkid in the bath - like it's nothing!) that if he refuses to fix the shower for her "You'll have another Notting Hill riot on your hands...A white one!" You really have to feel sorry for Weaver in this; it's little wonder a good deal of her dialogue scenes seem to have been completed again in ADR - she was probably too embarrassed first time round!

Another client who treats Slaughter like the intelligent woman she keeps claiming she is, and therefore is allowed to bed her and take photos of her riding an exercise bike topless (no, really - it's quite the scene), is Nadim Sawalha's Karim. And we know this because they recite quotes from classic movies at one another. But, whilst Caine's Lord Bulbeck looks set to be love for Slaughter, Karim naturally looks set to be trouble. He's simply too amiable and kindhearted (he gives Slaughter his luxury central London apartment) which means he must be up to no good.

It's hard being a Michael Caine fan at times, and no I don't just mean because of his politics. Ironically, given its theme of prostitution, Half Moon Street came out the same year as the infinitely more superior Mona Lisa (which I actually rewatched last night) and it can certainly be argued that this flop is proof that Caine should have sometimes forgotten the advice Peter O'Toole once gave him about only taking the big, or lead, roles in films to avoid being seen as a small part actor. His role in Mona Lisa is neither big, nor the lead. It is a cameo role which he took because he liked the script and Bob Hoskins and because Neil Jordan's first choice, Sean Connery, passed on it because the fee was far too low for the miserly old Scot. Irrespective of the size of the role, Caine is firing on all cylinders in Mona Lisa, whilst in Half Moon Street he is simply sleepwalking, and his chemistry with Weaver is virtually nil. His character of Lord Bulbeck, a lonely widower and the troubleshooting star of Anglo-Arab shuttle diplomacy, is vastly rewritten to accommodate his stardom. I believe that, in the novel, Bulbeck is a man in his seventies and his role in the main narrative is considerably smaller. In the film, he's 50-something and there is mutual attraction between him and Slaughter. His backstory too is I imagine reworked to suit Caine's screen persona; he may be a lord, but his father was a humble shop steward at the London docks he taught him everything he knew about trade unionism. This is a self made man, but we're still a world away from Alan Sugar.

Ultimately, the thriller element of the plot decides to raise its head and all the coincidences surrounding the main players slot into place as the plot to assassinate Bulbeck and Slaughter (which Kasim is involved in) in an attempt to discredit his memory and thwart the peace negotiations is foiled by an equally convenient last minute arrival of the security services.  

Half Moon Street fails as both an espionage thriller and as an erotic thriller. Its gender politics is also laughably inept and really offensive. Still, if you want to see several scenes of the simply gorgeous Sigourney Weaver topless (and on an exercise bike!) with wet 'faulty shower' hair, or paired up with Porkpie from '80s Channel 4 sitcom Desmond's, then this is the film for you.

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