Wednesday, 7 June 2023

Hidden City - 1987 film review

Way back in 1977, I happened to watch a play on TV. It was called Stronger than the Sun and it was written by a young playwright called Stephen Poliakoff, someone who - I discovered - was only a few years older than me. I was impressed with the story and the quality of the writing and it's no surprise to me that Poliakoff proceeded to enjoy a successful career. When I got the chance to see the first film he wrote and directed, I was glad to seize it.

That film is Hidden City and it has a few elements in common with Stronger than the Sun, which was written ten years earlier. It boasts a good cast, led by Charles Dance, with Cassie Stuart, Bill Paterson, Alex Norton, and Richard E. Grant. However, it doesn't seem to have enjoyed much success in the cinema, and soon made its way to Channel Four. Intriguing as it undoubtedly is, the film does have a number of shortcomings which help to explain why it made little impact.

Dance plays a snooty statistician, James Richards, who complains about the incompetence of a film researcher (Stuart, an interesting actress who seems to have faded from the scene). Oddly, and in an almost Highsmithian way, she latches on to him, pestering him to take an interest in a mysterious piece of film footage that she has found. It seems to show people being abducted. When this unlikely pair of sleuths start to investigate, it becomes clear that the authorities are irritated, to say the least.

I can't really describe this as a crime film, despite the element of mystery, and it's also short of suspense. The real problem is that Poliakoff has come up with a number of good ingredients, but hasn't managed to weld them into a compelling whole. A real shame. There are a number of scenes which simply don't fit - they hold up the flow of events for no clear purpose. I'm glad to have watched it, but there is a good reason why it fell into obscurity. 


Mike Campbell said...

Good evening, Martin
I'm a huge Poliakoff fan, to the extent that I will forgive him almost anything. beyond the recognised classics (Shooting the Past, Perfect Strangers, Caught on a Train, The Lost Prince, et al) I even like The Tribe, which probably only a dedicated fanboy could love...
Hidden City I have always really liked. It is flawed, but it has an atmosphere which I think is very effective, even if the plot doesn't entirely hold together - such as I remember, anyway - I did have it on an old VHS tape, and probably watched it 3 or 4 times (including introducing it my wife, who is also now a Poliakoff enthusiast!), but so long ago that it is little more remembered than as an atmosphere. But it was typical of a lot of dramas of the 1980s and early 1990s - a bit paranoid, pitched a little off-centre, hinting at secrets and the secret state (In the Secret State itself was another such work, and The McGuffin and Rainy Day Women, both also starring Charles Dance, were others) - the sort of pieces that really don't get made these days.
(By the way, just finished Blackstone Fell - great stuff, as always - would definitely make a good TV series. Not sure who to cast as Rachel, mind you...)

Martin Edwards said...

Interesting and pertinent observations, Mike, thank you. And I'm delighted that you enjoyed Blackstone Fell. I'd love to see Rachel on the screen!