Any sketch of Figures in a Landscape is sure to intrigue adventurous cinefiles. Starring Robert Shaw, who also wrote the script, and the inimitable Malcolm McDowell, this cerebral action film was directed by the esteemed Joseph Losey, and it enigmatically depicts the travails of two men who run through rugged terrain while unnamed aggressors pursue them in a helicopter. All of this is photographed, with considerable artistry, in glorious widescreen. Alas, the gulf between the metaphorical masterpiece this description conjures in the imagination of the prospective viewer and the actual film is substantial. Figures in a Landscape is everything you might want it to be, and so much less.
On the plus side, the film delivers one of Shaw’s most animalistic performances. (Rare is the project in which McDowell seems like the most restrained actor onscreen.) Additionally, some scenes have the intended quality of savage beauty, as when the two actors run from the helicopter while it buzzes them on a grassy hillside—the viewer can plainly see McDowell and Shaw in dangerous proximity to spinning rotor blades. On the minus side, Figures in a Landscape is excessively cryptic, because very few of the plot’s elements are explained. Yes, one can play all sorts of interpretive games with Figures in a Landscape, but there’s a fine line between creating mysterious art and simply befuddling viewers.
Given the givens, a recitation of the plot is somewhat pointless, but at least the task can be completed quickly. When the movie opens, Ansell (McDowell) and MacConnachie (Shaw) are shown running through remote fields and hills with their clothes in tatters and their hands tied behind their backs. We learn very little about how they landed in this situation, though we do see the duo pursued by gun-toting mystery men in a helicopter. MacConnoachie, a rough-hewn war veteran, hopes to ditch the weak Ansell, but then—once circumstances allow the men to free themselves and secure weapons—Ansell gains possession of important resources. They press on together, surviving close calls with the helicopter and even encountering citizens and soldiers of the unnamed land through which they’re traveling, until forming a plan to storm their enemy’s stronghold.
Even though Shaw delivers some lengthy monologues about his character’s wife, the lack of explanation for the characters’ predicament is maddening. As such, what Figures in a Landscape offers is atmosphere and intensity. The film is consistently eerie, thanks in part to the taut score by Richard Rodney Bennett, and the leading actors play moments quite well even if the sum is less than the parts. Obviously, viewers willing to fill in the blanks—or to let the blanks be—will derive more from the experience of Figures in a Landscape than those hoping for conventional pleasures.
Figures in a Landscape: FUNKY