Apt Pupil - rated - TEPID

Apt Pupil depends very heavily on the performance of its two stars: Ian McKellen and Brad Renfro.

Ian McKellen plays Kurt Dussander, an ex Nazi (can there ever be an ex-Nazi?). He's quietly hiding in American suburbia, numbing his mind by drinking himself into oblivion and watching cartoons and gameshows on TV. He is discovered by a bright young boy who happens to know quite a lot about the Nazis - but not enough to satisfy him. The boy, Todd (Brad Renfro) begins to spend time with this man, and ends by more than matching him in potential for evil.

Again, as with 8MM and American History X, a fascinating idea. But as with those films, the film does not quite live up to the premise. McKellen certainly puts in an amazing performance as a man in his eighties who is decaying inside and out (you feel you can almost smell him!). Unfortunately, Brad Renfro is not up to the task of matching him (what 16-year old could?). So the film lacks balance. To be sure, Renfro has a certain quality of blankness that perfectly suits an adolescent American boy - but who can connect with blankness?

What the film also lacks is a proper premise. What are these horrific details which Brad would ruin his life to find out? How come they can't be taught, or uncovered by assiduous research? Would a 16-year old boy really prefer such things to sex? If so, what an amazing boy he'd be! I wanted to know why he was like this. Was he:
(a) carefully taught;
(b) particularly susceptible;
(c) bad to begin with?

Unfortunately, we don't get to explore these fascinating questions. Instead we get locked in a cellar with a cliché: Archie, played by the usually-excellent Elias Koteas (Crash, 1996, The Thin Red Line, 1998). Koteas does his best, as does Michael Byrne, who makes a late appearance as Ben Kramer. Byrne goes closest to Ian McKellan for acting honours. He brightens up the last section of the film which was, I'm afraid, in danger of losing me. Still McKellan also makes a stylish exit, so the film managed - just- to sustain me til the end.

Musically, the film is a bit clichéed. We get lots of Wagner (Tristan & Isolde ), and even Beethoven's 9th when a good report card is received. Visually, Apt Pupil is more interesting. Bryan Singer, a stylish director on the evidence of his first film, The Usual Suspects, 1995), moves the camera well enough. One scene which stands out in the memory is a scene involving a pigeon and a basketball - it's very impressive. But then again there is a scene with a cat and an oven which has to be seen to be believed!

The problem for me is with the whole premise of the film. At least in 8MM we saw something of the "snuff" film which was the centrepiece of the plot. Here we get a few fragments of conversation between McKellen and Renfro, but the director and writer seem too reverent about the suffering in the concentration camps to give us a clear enough idea of what all the fuss is about. It makes for a mystifying movie.