Born in 1928, British director Nicolas Roeg first came to prominence as part of the Second Unit Directing Team of the magisterial 1962 David Lean film “Lawrance Of Arabia”.
Quickly becoming known for a strong and penetrating visual sense and style, Roeg moved into cinematography, responsible for the lush, striking visual style of such films as Francois Truffaut’s “Farenheit 451” (1966) and “Far From The Madding Crowd” (1967), which brought him to the attention of Hollywood.
Roeg, along with co-director and fellow Brit Donald Cammell, proceeded to make one hell of an impact with the 1970 film “Performance”. Actually made and completed in 1968, it scandalised and confronted the executives at the studio that made it, Warner Brothers, that they shelved the film for two years, at which time a more permissive regime at Warners decided to take a chance on it.
What makes Roeg unique as director? Apart from his striking, highly individual visual style, he has an uncanny ability to tell stories about strangers in strange lands. Whether it be the orphaned children in “Walkabout” (1971), the almost otherworldly canals of Venice in “Don’t Look Now” (1973), or even middle America in “The Man Who Fell To Earth” (1976), Roeg tells his stories like no other director.
This also has to do with how he tells his stories. Roeg is a huge fan of what could be best described as ‘non-linear narrative’. He continually jumps back and forward in time, presenting a fragmented, almost mosaic approach to time and space. Put it this way. Roeg was perfecting fractured chronology when future maverick director Quentin Tarantino was still in short pants!
An incredibly divisive director and one that you’ll either love or hate, he has been a massive influence on the like of the aforementioned Tarantino, Guy Ritchie, Danny Boyle, both Ridley and the late Tony Scott and Christopher Nolan.
Here are ten directorial efforts from Nicholas Roeg that will teach you to ‘look’ at cinema in a completely different way.
10. Castaway (1986)
Set on an island, this is a two hander between actors Oliver Reed and Amanda Donahoe. A man advertises for a female companion to spend a year with him on an island. This is a left of centre look at the eternal concept and idea of the battle of the sexes.
Definitely far from Roeg at his best, the worst thing that can be said about “Castaway” is that is it somewhat predictable in its story projection, albeit a beautifully shot and filmed one. Something of an oddity in Roeg’s career. While interesting, it never quite takes hold as you feel it should.
9. Track 29 (1988)
A mysterious stranger (Gary Oldman) suddenly appears out of nowhere. He may or may not be the long lost child of Linda Henry (Theresa Russell), a bored doctor’s wife.
Written by renowned playwright Dennis Potter, “Track 29” is not uninteresting. However, it is almost borderline indecipherable. Potter’s style of writing fails to mesh with Roeg’s utterly in your face, visual assault.
In probably not a coincidence, Oldman’s character, Martin, bears a more than passing resemblance to the character that David Bowie played in Roeg’s 1976 film “The Man Who Fell To Earth”. Like so many things in “Track 29”, this is completely unexplained.
Pardon the pun, but this one goes off the rails, but not in a way that makes you want to watch something else. Even at his weakest, Roeg still proves to be more interesting than some of the other directors out there.
8. Eureka (1983)
Based on true events, this is an striking, uniquely told drama that looks at the murder of Jack mc Cann (Gene Hackman), a multi-millionaire. Featuring Theresa Russell, Rutger Hauer, Mickey Rourke and Joe Pesci, “Eureaka” is an ambitious and bracing work that eventually bites off a little bit more than it can chew.
This is one of those few films that, in its own violent, vulgar and complex way, looks at that point in life where you are mentally and spiritually once life has given you all you want on a material level. A challenging work and not for everyone, this is definitely something of an acquired taste.
7. Insignificance (1985)
Almost a theatre-like piece, this is primarily set in a hotel room. Adding to the air of mystery, the characters are thinly veiled takes on famous people, such as Albert Einstein, Senator Joe Mc Carthy, Marilyn Monroe and Joe Di Maggio. “Insignificance” is very much the chamber piece, each of the characters reflecting upon the state of their lives.
A tantalising, daring ‘what if’, it walks an incredibly fine line between being profound and pretentious. While something of a lesser work in the Roeg back catalogue, it has a true originality and intellectual spark to it. It’s a film that is well worth your time, especially if you’re a Roeg fan.
6. The Witches (1990)
Roeg at his most mainstream. A crowd pleasing take on the famous Rold Dahl novel, this saw Roeg harness his powers once more and tone down spectacularly on the sex and violence that personified some of his key works, such as “Eureaka”, “Don’t Look Now” and “The Man Who Fell To Earth”.
With a gorgeous visual style to it, “The Witches” really takes you into a particular world, time and place. Retaining Dahl’s sly and sarcastic sense of humour, this is a film that will please and entertain a number of different types of audiences.
Out of the adaptations of Dahl’s work, this is one of the most accomplished and satisfying. Anjelica Huston proves to be an inspired choice as the Grand Witch Of All The World, hilarious and terrifying in equal doses.
One for all the family, this is director Roeg at his most accessible. In semi-retirement these days, this would prove to be Roeg’s last truly great work.