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The Discovery Of Heaven
cast: Stephen Fry, Greg Wise, Flora Montgomery Diana Quick, and Viv Weatherall

director: Jeroen Krabbé

127 minutes (15) 2001
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Eureka DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 8/10
reviewed by Ian Sales
Adapting a novel for the screen is a process fraught with compromises and dangers. Jeroen Krabbé's film of Harry Mulisch's The Discovery Of Heaven is a case in point. The Penguin edition of the book has 736 pages... which have been shrunk to just over two hours of screen-time. Even to someone unfamiliar with the novel, such as myself, the film has a somewhat fractured approach to storytelling.

Harry Mulisch is one of the 'great three', the greatest three writers of post-war literature in the Netherlands. In 1995, he won the Prijs de Nederlandse Letteren, a lifetime achievement literature award. The Discovery Of Heaven, published in 1992, is Mulisch's best-known and best-selling work. So it's hardly surprising that it was adapted for the screen, despite its size and complexity. What is odd, however, is that it was done so in English and not Dutch. Apparently, Mulisch only allowed Krabb� is film it on the condition that Stephen Fry played Onno Quist. And there's one compromise straightaway... which may well explain the choice of language. Fry, apparently, closely resembles Dutch chess grandmaster Hein Donner, a close friend of Mulisch's and on whom he based the character of Quist.

God has decided that the Covenant between Heaven and Earth is over, and so wants returned the stone tablets on which the Ten Commandments were written. An angel (Viv Weatherall) is tasked with achieving this. The angel sets in motion a plan in which two men meet a woman. She will then give birth to a messenger, who will find and return the tablets. The two men are Onno Quist (Stephen Fry), a linguist, and Max Delius (Greg Wise), an astronomer. In 1967, they meet by chance - a coincidence engineered by the angel, and his superior Gabriel (Krabbé himself) - and immediately become fast friends. One day, they come across a small bookshop and meet cellist Ada Brons (Flora Montgomery). Max, an unprincipled womaniser, falls in love with her, and the two enter into a relationship. But Max is still tortured by his past - his father was a Nazi who turned in his Jewish wife to the Gestapo. She died in Auschwitz. He goes to visit the site of the concentration camp. Onno and Ada, left alone, fall in love, and are together when Max returns. Nonetheless, the three of them visit Cuba where Ada has been asked to play at a revolutionary convention. Onno and Max jokingly sign up as delegates.

That's a lot of plot to get through, and it's only 'The Beginning of the Beginning', the first of the four parts of the novel and film. As a result, Onno and Max's friendship seems to gel unnaturally quickly. And Onno's fascination with the Phaistos Disc, and Max's search for Heaven using a radio telescope, appear entirely unnecessary - yet these are important elements of the novel, which is apparently characterised by the two characters' witty conversations on topics such as religion, science, philosophy, history and politics.

The next section, 'The End of the Beginning', sees Ada pregnant by either Max or Onno. Both slept with her in Cuba, and either could be the father. Onno and Ada marry, and Max moves away. They visit him regularly. Returning after one such trip, they crash, and lightning - aimed by the angel - strikes a tree which crushes their car. Ada is inside. She is left in a coma, but the baby is born healthy.

Now the story has begun to settle down. If the first section laid out the backstory, and did so a little too quickly to really convince, this section is much better paced. The relationship between the story of Onno, Max and Ada and the angels' plot is also starting to become clear.

'The Beginning of the End' details the childhood of Ada's son, Quinten (Neil Newbon). He is a strange child. Since Onno is now a successful politician, and too busy to raise his own son, Quinten lives with Max and Ada's mother. However, Onno's membership of the revolutionary convention in Cuba is brought to light and his political career is destroyed. He disappears. And Max, who is on the verge of discovering Heaven with his radio telescope, is suddenly killed by a freak asteroid.

The final section is, of course, 'The End of the End'. Quinten, now a teenager, has been experiencing increasingly lucid dreams. At their instigation, he travels to Italy, where he stumbles across Onno. Quinten is convinced that Moses' tablets can be found in the Lateran Palace, and that he must steal them. They break in at night... and Quinten's interests and upbringing prove to have given him precisely the skills he needs to succeed. The two flee with the stone tablets to Jerusalem. There Quinten, the messenger, must return them to Heaven, which he does in the Dome of the Rock.

The shape of the story has finally been revealed, although it's been a journey somewhat over-packed plot-wise to the final scene. In this respect, I suspect Krabbé's film matches Mulisch's novel. However, there's little evidence of Mulisch's much-vaunted wit in the film's dialogue. It's by no means dumb, of course; and to British viewers Fry's presence gives Onno an intellectual weight those unfamiliar with his career might not see. It seems a shame to turn Onno and Max's friendship into backstory, but to include it faithfully may well have made the film far too long, and not as interesting.

However, telling the story of a novel in a film adaptation is only one element of the process. Cinema is, after all, a visual medium. Given its subject, Mulisch's novel demands a larger-than-life representation on the screen. To some extent, Krabbé succeeds in this. His Heaven, for example, is especially impressive, a place of vast towers and staircases and bridges, a sort of Gormenghast gone berserk. The Dutch locations seem unduly picturesque by comparison; but are in turn offset by the grandeur of the Roman scenery and the antiquity of the locations in Jerusalem. In fact, I thought it remarkable that Krabbé had been given permission to film in the Dome of the Rock... only to discover from one of the extras on the DVD that it was filmed on a set with CGI backgrounds.

I suspect The Discovery Of Heaven will have slipped below most people's radar. The awful cover art for the DVD will not have helped. This is a shame. The central trio of Fry, Wise and Montgomery play their parts well - although initially Fry seems a little too over-expressive. The film does at first cover its story at a somewhat hectic pace, but it settles down in the second section. Perhaps the film is not as intellectually stimulating as the novel, but this is hardly unexpected. And speaking of which... on the strength of Krabb�'s film, I would like to read the novel. And I had never heard of Mulisch before. In that respect, The Discovery Of Heaven can be counted a successful adaptation.
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