Lost In Translation

Better not be lost on the Oscar jury...

Released in 2003, certified UK-15. Reviewed on 15 Jan 2004 by Craig Eastman
Lost In Translation image

Now I'm no Bill Murray fan (the sheer vanity and self-assuredness of his particular brand of humour never sat well with me), although to this day I still chortle at the revelation that "the flowers are still standing". Blow me down, however, if Lost In Translation hasn't shoulder charged the award-focused competition to take the lead as easily the best film of 2004 so far. A gentle, almost whimsical look at love, communication and commercialism, the film revolves around the experiences of Bob Harris (Murray), a respected American actor in Tokyo to film a commercial for whiskey. While there he encounters Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), the bored and somewhat neglected young wife of photographer John (Giovanni Ribisi), and the pair soon strike up a friendship based on mutual boredom and a nagging feeling there must be more to life.

As the movie progresses, Bob's phone calls home to his wife become increasingly emotionally distant, and his frustration at the bizarre indiosyncracies of a land in which he might as well be an alien begins to mount. Similarly Charlotte finds herself increasingly alone and so the pair turn to each other for moral, philosophical and emotional support. It's the delicate flowering of their relationship that forms the emotional core of the movie, and it's here that Lost In Translation differs from so many other movies of it's type. There's no heavy-handed signposting, and no tumultuous confessions of lust. Instead, writer-director Sofia Coppola has the faith in her leads to let them convey their complex emotional states through the quietest of nuances and brilliantly captured set-piece moments such as a touching (even if horrendously out of key) moment at a karaoke bar and an anti-climactic yet thoroughly satisfying encounter in Bob's hotel room.

It's been a good couple of years since Coppola gained praise for her first feature The Virgin Suicides, and by this measure I'll quite happily wait another few until her next if it promises to be even half as good as this. Lost In Translation would be a stunning accomplishment for any director, let alone a mere second attempt, and that it has taken a young woman to tell so beautifully and simply such an essentially complicated emotional tale in the testosterone-fuelled land of Hollywood may hopefully encourage female directors everywhere. Showing remarkable clarity of vision and confidence both in her cast and her own writing abilities, Coppola truly has done herself and her father's legacy proud, turning out the most touching and truthful movie in recent memory.

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Small wonder she and Johansson have become such firm friends off screen. The young Star (and I do mean Star) shows remarkable maturity in her role as Charlotte, undoubtedly devoted to her husband but understandably in need of a better emotional anchor. That she portrays her character with warmth and vulnerability from the off rather than the tired approach of she-devil-with-a-heart is a welcome choice, and to have such a strong female lead without the character resorting to emotional manipulation is practically a revelation. Hardly any surprise when, coupled with her obvious sense of fun and natural beauty, Miss Johansson will undoubtedly become the thinking man's object of desire. Her turn here is confident, professional and alarmingly alluring, and if it's not announced as a nominee for Best Actress at this year's Oscars I'll personally string up every member of the nomination committee.

Hold the bus, though, because as much a revelation as Johansson may be, it's the re-invented Murray who most definitely steals the show. Tearing down all the hallmarks he's slaved for years to establish and dancing naked round the fire as they burn, Bill blisters as the jaded, deflated star who hasn't so much reached a crossroads in his life as gotten perpetually stuck on some remote, pointless roundabout. Alone in an emotional wilderness, his detached bemusement at the neon anarchy of his Tokyo surroundings is both a joy to watch and central in our connection with the character's emotional state. Allowed the odd moment or two of (albeit more subdued) Murray physical comedy, his performance is otherwise much more mature and contemplative than his legions of fans might have come to expect, although the fact he's done so damn well should nevertheless make them extremely proud.

Bob Harris might have money and stardom but Murray portrays him as someone we can all connect with, and the dynamic between his character and that of Johansson is simultaneously beautiful yet ultimately doomed. As the bond they share becomes more apparent there also follows a sense of foreboding that anyone who's been in a relationship they cherish but realise can't work will recognise. It's this mood the movie succeeds most in capturing; the beautiful torture of a soul mate you can't have, and if like his co-star Murray isn't at the very least nominated this year for his remarkable embodiment of said suffering there's surely something very, very rotten in Denmark.

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In a time when mainstream movie-making is at the peak of big-budget, action-driven, sequel-selling violence and banality, it's movies like this that save jaded amatuer hacks like us here at TheOneLiner from stringing ourselves up by our belts in the men's toilet at the local multiplex. Very much like the excellent Wilbur (Wants To Kill Himself), Lost In Translation manages to say more about the human condition in a few seconds of silence than any number of summer blockbusters can in two hours plus. When you leave a cinema knowing exacctly how much two people care about each other without ever having confessed their feelings, you know you've witnessed a lesson in both writing and accting.

There's an undeniable understanding and electricity between the two leads that sets this picture alight, and to be honest it's the kind of film that could probably survive without a director purely on the strength of this alone. All the more remarkable her achievement then that Coppola's influence can still be felt as strongly as that of her two leads, and in keeping with my comments on that subject it'd be only fair for Sofia herself to get a nod from the academy for both direction and writing.

Yes there's a place for big explosions, gunfights, swearing and special effects in cinemas, it's just at the moment things seem a little disproportionate. When you consider how many Lost In Translations you could have had for every Bad Boys 2 out there you begin to get the picture. It's with thoughts like that in mind that we await anxiously Coppola's next and say long may the Murray renaissance continue. Lost In Translation is utterly unmissable fare and a strong contender for entry into the Disko Top 10. I shall say no more.

Disko has awarded this movie 5 out of 5 Fralkafranolicinisms.

Sofia Coppola
Cast list:
Bill Murray (Bob Harris)
Scarlett Johansson (Charlotte)
Giovanni Ribisi (John)