`The Trial' Verdict: No Match for Welles

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

THE longest line I stood in at this year's Montreal World Film Festival was for ``The Trial,'' a new version of Franz Kafka's novel with tantalizing credentials: Directed by David Jones from Harold Pinter's screenplay, it features Kyle MacLachlan in the lead and Anthony Hopkins and Jason Robards among the supporting players.

Like others who stood in the same queue and shared their thoughts about the movie afterward, I was impressed by ``The Trial'' on many grounds, from the seriousness of its approach to the vigor of its best performances. I couldn't shake the memory of a more exciting adaptation, though - the one made by Orson Welles just 30 years ago - or the sense that a truly great film version will surely be made someday, but it hasn't come along yet.

There is no question about the keen intelligence and widespread influence of Kafka's greatest novel. It touched a profoundly resonant chord with its portrait of an ordinary man, Josef K., caught in the crushingly impersonal gears of modern bureaucratic society - arrested on no evidence, put on trial with no explicit charge, and ultimately destroyed by a system he can't begin to understand.

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Some see the story as a parable of social engineering run amok. More interestingly, others contend that Josef K. really is guilty of some deep-rooted shame and knows in his most hidden self that he deserves the punishment he is receiving.

Welles's film version took the society-gone-crazy interpretation, surrounding K. with Orwellian power structures wielding totalitarian control over just about everyone. Following this lead, Anthony Perkins played K. as a nervous victim who grows more agitated with every new twist in his situation. This approach suited Perkins's great talent for playing characters under stress and strain. But it strayed from Kafka's vision, in which K. remains cool and collected - if angry and indignant - no matter how outrageously the system treats him.

Pinter's adaptation gives us a K. closer to the novel's hero, generally retaining his dignity and composure as he tries to defend himself under near-impossible circumstances. Along with Jones's restrained directing style, this sets the new movie quite apart from Welles's version, and provides a good setting for MacLachlan, whose limited acting range necessitates a comparatively muted portrayal of the main character.

Over dinner during the Montreal filmfest, executive producer Kobi Jaeger told me that the filmmakers' aim was to make a relatively realistic ``Trial'' that would steer toward real life rather than hyperreal fable. They have succeeded at this, although my tastes run more toward Welles's wild adventurousness than Jones's dutiful elegance.

The greatest excitement of the new ``Trial'' is found in its supporting performances. Although he gets star billing, Hopkins only appears on screen for about five minutes, as the priest who gives K. some last-minute advice. Incredibly, the gifted Hopkins earns every ounce of his billing in that small amount of time, putting his talent to superbly expressive use. Robards has sinister fun as a powerful lawyer, and Alfred Molina is brilliant.

r ``The Trial'' does not have an MPAA rating. It contains some sexual references, a small amount of violence, and a generally unsettling atmosphere.

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