“The war’s come down to the two of us.”
Well cast, sleekly designed and briskly paced, Eye of the Needle begins two stories–in two parts–as separate strands, eventually weaving them together into a tapestry which while lovely to look at, nevertheless betrays some wide loopholes.
Part I: 1940. The Blitz is on and like the rest of his fellow Londoners, wounded war veteran Henry Faber (Donald Sutherland, Buffy the Vampire Slayer) does his bit, scheduling troop transports through the national railway system. All goes according to plan until his landlady (Barbara Ewing, Dracula Has Risen from the Grave) makes a horrifying discovery: Faber is, in fact, a German spy. Before she can pass this vital information on, however, she’s quickly dispatched by the stiletto that has earned Faber his nickname, “the Needle.”
Meanwhile, we join a lovely garden reception in progress. Lucy (Kate Nelligan, Frankie and Johnny) has just wed David Rose (Christopher Cazenove, A Knight’s Tale) and they’ve got but one night together before the groom goes off to fly Spitfires for the RAF. But you know what they say about the best laid plans…Speeding along on winding back roads, their roadster makes the unfortunate sudden acquaintance of an oncoming truck.
Part II: 1944. Lucy and David occupy just one of two houses located on a clifftop in the Scottish highlands known as Storm Island. The other belongs to Tom (Alex McCrindle, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes), an elderly sheep herder, often incapacitated by drink The young couple’s family has grown by one; a bouncy, blonde, two year old son. Though the couple survived their ghastly wreck, David’s legs did not, and with them seems to have gone any warm feelings he once had for his wife.
Meanwhile, “the Needle” has been reconnoitering and made an astonishing discovery: the reported build up of the First United States Army Group (FUSAG) under General George Patton in East Anglia is no more than a fictional army, created to deceive the Axis Powers, who’ve been led to believe that the Allied Forces’ oncoming amphibious assault will be on the beach of Pas-de-Calais instead of Normandy. In order to hand deliver this game-changing news to Adolf Hitler, the Needle (now posing as Henry Baker, a British novelist) must wait to rendezvous with a German U-boat in the bay just off Storm Island.
Startled to find the remote location inhabited, the Needle goes about eliminating those who might discover the truth about him and scuttle his mission. An old drunkard and an invalid hardly pose much of a challenge to such a practiced killer, but young Lucy turns out to be another matter altogether.
Make no mistake: Eye of the Needle features a good deal of commendable work, from the authentic period detail established by Oscar winning Production Designer Wilfred Shingleton (Great Expectations)–a pox, however, on whomever allowed male actors keep their feathered hairstyles–and the breath-taking cinematography by Alan Hume (Runaway Train). Performances here are almost uniformly excellent (especially from Nelligan and Cazenove), and screenwriter Stanley Mann (The Collector) found some amazing ways to prune Ken Follett’s three hundred and seventy-something page novel into one hundred and twelve minutes of screen action. For his part, director Richard Marquand (Star Wars: Episode VI-Return of the Jedi) keeps things moving without ever allowing the simultaneous story lines to become tedious or confused.
Now about those loopholes. First and foremost is Sutherland, an otherwise top rate actor who’s more than established his ability to play both the romantic hero and cold-blooded killer types to perfection. Here his otherwise fine work is seriously marred by an atrocious British accent. How can we possibly believe that anyone from the UK wouldn’t question this immediately, given that one’s accent identifies not only one’s geographical region but one’s placement in the island’s all-important class system, as well? There’s also the matter of Inspector Godliman (Ian Bannen, The Flight of the Phoenix), of MI5, who’s hot on the Needle’s trail, if always a few steps behind. While a major character in the novel, the film reduces him to something of a red herring and as such, little more than a time-waster for an actor of Bannen’s high caliber.
Though it moves as if on greased skids, Eye of the Needle ultimately suffers from its speed, more resembling an amusement park ride than a satisfying thriller. I defy anyone to tell me that they couldn’t guess the outcome of the final showdown between Lucy and the Needle, which results more from the employment of conventional movie rules than from common sense. Given that Sutherland’s character has been able to elude capture for several years in a foreign country due to his deadly skills and Lucy represents the stock damsel-in-distress model, how are we to believe that they’d be equally matched in a mortal combat situation? Good thing shotguns and hatches seem to pop up at unbelievably opportune times, isn’t it? Finally, in their haste to wrap things up, the filmmakers have chosen to dispense of Follett’s inspired original coda and replaced it with an abrupt ending that seems to whisper: All right, folks! Thanks for coming and please exit on the right so we can bring the next crowd in…
Twilight Time’s limited edition release (3,000 copies) looks great on Blu-ray, with a sharp and clean 1.85:1/1080p AVC-encoded transfer and features a sterling DTS-HD 2.0 master audio accompaniment. Optional English SDH subtitles are also available.
Bonus features are standard: an audio commentary track from TT factotums Nick Redman and Julie Kirgo, joined by musicologist Jon Burlingame (who puts particular emphasis on Miklos Roza’s epic–and penultimate–score); an Isolated Score track; a colorful booklet featuring an essay by Kirgo, and a look at the film’s original theatrical trailer.
I don’t mean to damn Eye of the Needle with faint praise by calling it a well-made, if middling, potboiler, but I will warn you to read Follett’s excellent novel after instead of before seeing the film–otherwise, you’ll be disappointed.