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The Unbearable Lightness of Being Review

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by Casimir Harlow May 3, 2006

    The Unbearable Lightness of Being Review
    Daniel Day-Lewis is a highly underrated actor. Following the same school of acting as the likes of DeNiro, his method-style approach is apparent throughout his work. He has a diverse résumé as well and is certainly not one for being typecast, with movies ranging from Scorsese's solid Gangs of New York (where Day-Lewis was on top scene-stealing form) to the often overlooked period adventure The Last of the Mohicans, an early effort by Michael Mann. He took controversy in his stride with My Beautiful Launderette, handled disabilities in My Left Foot (for which he won a Best Actor Oscar) and returned to his homeland for the IRA dramas, The Boxer and In the Name of the Father. With all of these under his belt, one might wonder why he has not received more premium roles or greater acclaim, but I guess we can only hope and wait that his next great effort will be fully appreciated. In the meantime, DVD has given us the opportunity to revisit some of his earlier work, including this little-known movie (based on a much more famous book) - The Unbearable Lightness of Being.

    It's Sixties Czechoslovakia and the Russians are in control. They insist upon a strict Communist rule but the Czechs have more practical, equitable plans and the Russians have yet to fully enforce their regime. In the midst of the confusion, one young surgeon's mind is far from focussed on the current political climate. Tomas is much more interested in his next sexual conquest, lining up girlfriends to share his time with, whether nurses in his workplace or his on-off regular, Sabina, an almost equally sexually vociferous partner.

    Then one day Tomas meets Tereza, a naïve and capricious young woman who is caught in Tomas' deadly spider's web. But, against his own rules of not staying overnight with any woman, he lets Tereza into his world, letting her stay at his flat and even going on to marry her. But will he be able to change his free-living ways and give up his many women, most notably the insatiable Sabina. Before all is resolved, the Czech government's lax adherence to the Russian Communist rule results in an invasion by Russian military and subsequent mass public riots. Tomas and Teresa get caught in the thick of things and their lives will simply never be the same.

    Based on an apparently unfilmable book by novelist Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being is supposed to chart the three-way relationship of these disparate individuals, who each have a different outlook on life and love. Set to the backdrop of a very unstable political climate, it seemingly looks at how they mature and how they develop in their lives and in their relationships with one another. To be honest though, it is a fairly cynical representation of life, a forerunner to the likes of Closer, just as admirable for its solid performances and dramatic storyline but also just as tiring. Are people really this insecure and possessive or - alternatively - frivolous and unfaithful? At one point, Tomas is having sex with Sabina whilst looking at his watch - it does not get much more cynical than that.

    Cramming the fateful Czech 'Spring' of '68 (where the Russians invaded) into one extended black and white montage, it deals more with the aftermath and its effect on the central characters than with the socio-political ramifications, which is supposedly not totally in line with the intentions of the original work. The performances are outstanding, with Daniel Day-Lewis utterly embracing the highly dislikeable central role of Tomas and Lena Olin exuding sexiness. The real star is probably Juliette Binoche, who is perfectly cast as the fractured, vulnerable, self-destructive and lovestruck Tereza. The trouble is, you cannot really relate to any of the main characters and their ongoing triangle of love and hurt eventually becomes tedious. Don't get me wrong, this is a well-observed study of human relationships during a tough political situation, but it is also a little unbelievable in its narrative. After nearly three hours' of it, I was tired and the unconvincing ending just does not tie in with the rest of the story and left me unsatisfied.