The Ninth Gate – Review

The Ninth Gate

with Johnny Depp, Lena Olin, Frank Langella, and Emmanuelle Seigner
Directed by Roman Polanski
Written by Arturo Pérez-Reverte, John Brownjohn
by Michael McCarthy

Johnny Depp is director/co-screenwriter Roman Polanski’s leading man, occupying nearly every scene (if not all of them) in this fable/thriller. He plays Dean Corso, a manipulative, cheating dealer of ancient books. He goes around taking texts worth millions out of the hands of people he has misinformed for a small fraction of their actual value. He cheats people guiltlessly, priding himself on his unsavory deals and carrying on with the ego of, well, a hugely successful Hollywood player. (If you loathed James Cameron for proclaiming himself king-of-the-world at the Oscars, you’ll hate Corso.) Depp is fantastic in the role, delivering his best performance since What’s Eating Gilbert Grape.

As the dark plot begins to unfold, Corso is in New York. A very wealthy client known as Balkan (a creepier-than-ever Frank Langella) shows him his very rare and valuable collection of books on… the devil. Not that Corso believes in such an entity, but Balkan proceeds to show him a book bearing a pentagram that was supposedly co-written by the devil himself, resulting in the execution of the human author. The book, Balkan explains, contains the nine doors to the kingdom of the dark. Hell, that is. If properly interpreted, the book is supposed to conjure the devil himself. Corso recognizes the book as being extremely valuable because only three of them exist. Balkan, however, explains that he believes only one to be authentic. (He’s clearly tried to summon the devil with his copy and failed – that much is written all over his face.) He hires Corso to go to France and Italy to compare them. Corso believes Balkan’s copy to be authentic, but the money is too tempting for a greedy fellow like him to resist. Still, he wishes he’d declined Balkan’s offer soon after when his apartment is tossed and he finds himself being followed by a man who seems to want to kill him, and a woman (Emmanuelle Seigner) who seems to want to protect him. Beyond that, well, I’m sure you’d rather I not spoil it for you.

Polanski does an elegant job directing The Ninth Gate from start to finish. From the opening credits until the film’s final revelation, it commands your attention, even during the most seemingly trivial scenes. In fact, it’s during those subtle moments that Polanski’s direction is at its peak. If he falters anywhere, it’s during the scenes in which supernatural powers are employed by one of the characters.

Emmanuelle Seigner and Lena Olin are great as women Corso encounters during his search. Unfortunately, what keeps the film from being as masterful as many of Polanski’s other works is that it is far too easy to determine the role of one of the characters, though I can’t say more than that or I’ll make it even easier for you to figure out.

In regards to the screenplay, I wish the ending had been more of a surprise. I enjoyed the film and it was a treat to see a modern-day fairy tale, especially of the dark sort, but… I can’t say I was shocked by it. But, hey, it gives far better insight into what that orgy was all about in Eyes Wide Shut (beyond the sex, of course) than anything in Eyes Wide Shut ever did.

See it and savor it for its decidedly offbeat tone and Depp’s arresting performance, but don’t expect to walk away stunned.