The Legend of Tarzan
Director - David Yates
Cast - Alexander Skarsgård, Margot Robbie, Samuel L Jackson, Christoph Waltz, Djimon Hounsou
Rating - 4/5
“He’s Tarzan, you are Jane. He will come for you.” There couldn’t have been 10 more perfect words to sum this movie up. And Christoph Waltz, bless his one-trick act, delivers them with just the right amount of smug venom.
What makes a movie, that might on the surface look like it’s just another release date, another intellectual property exploited for its lasting legacy, another grim retelling of a beloved modern hero – transcend every hurdle in its way, and become satisfying, surprising… What makes a film win you over, and become, against all expectations, something you can picture yourself watching again?
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It is usually the briefest of moments that turn a film. It can be a petulant glimmer in the eye, a hint of a knowing smile on the edge of the lips, the quiet arrival of a musical theme, or a line of dialogue that you would never hear outside of a movie theatre. Each of these elements converges in that one tingling scene in The Legend of Tarzan.
We know Tarzan. We know Jane. We know he will come for her.
David Yates’ film takes the same route Tim Burton took in Alice in Wonderland, and before you recoil in doubt, let me explain. Rest easy, the only similarity The Legend of Tarzan shares with Alice is that both feature protagonists who are called back into the land where they first had their adventures, the lands where they became, and still remain - legends.
He is now John Clayton III, Lord Greystoke. He sips tea, speaks infrequently, and sits, visibly uncomfortable, in gentlemen’s clothes. And then Samuel L Jackson reminds him who he used to be, and why he needs to return to the jungles of Africa to protect his kingdom – and save the woman he loves.
The Legend of Tarzan, like its larger-than-life hero, is a film burdened with a legacy that it struggles to comprehend. Fortunately, David Yates, director of 4 of the best Harry Potter films, knows a thing or two about legacy. As Tarzan – or, more precisely, John – wrestles with his past and as the film slowly peels off his layers (quite literally), he becomes a man set free, unshackled from a life of manners. The same memories that once burdened him, he learns, correctly, are what define him. These are the memories that make him The Lord of the Jungle.
Waltz, like Irrfan Khan, plays a character he has now fine-tuned to a fault. Surrounded by slavery and Imperialism, he strikes a deal with Djimon Hounsou’s tribal chief. He will bring him Tarzan. He will receive, as they all do, diamonds for his services. For his plan to succeed, he will need to kidnap Jane, played by Margot Robbie. And you’d better be ready to clean some spit off your face if you call her a damsel in distress. Robbie’s Jane Porter is resourceful, brave, and madly in love. She will need rescuing, but not if she can rescue herself first.
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This Tarzan is a wonderfully old-fashioned Hollywood epic, the sort that’s getting rarer by the year. It treads the fine line between being modern and nostalgic.
It is also, and this may or may not surprise you (but it should) – one of the most breathtakingly beautiful films you’re likely to see this year. Henry Braham’s lighting is oddly experimental. One moment the camera is gliding over vast African landscapes, and in the next, it’s framing Jane’s eyes, in gorgeous soft focus, handheld, the light behind her like simmering embers.
It didn’t surprise me when I first heard the rumour that David Yates, immediately after finishing up Harry Potter, was Warner Bros’ favourite son along with Christopher Nolan. His direction, like Tarzan, is tender and stoic. He doesn’t fill the movie with incomprehensible, wall-to-wall action. He builds momentum, establishes a sweeping, romantic, adventurous tone and lets the characters propel the plot. And when the action finally arrives, it’s spectacular. The first time Tarzan swings through the trees is exhilarating. The first time his call echoes through the mountains and trees, it’s chilling.
And finally, a word about Alexander Skarsgård - the man carrying the film on his chiseled shoulders. He is, to put it simply, perfect. His chemistry with not only Margot Robbie, but Samuel L Jackson, is the heart and soul of the film. He is earnest and vulnerable. He is Tarzan.
Listen to Hozier’s theme song from the film, Better Love, here