Lost In Translation

4 stars


2nd January 2005

The follow-up to 1999's The Virgin Suicides, Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation is a story about despondency, a story about being adrift, about looking for your place in the grand scheme of things and not being able to find it. It's certainly an easy subject to identify with, and if there's any justice, then Lost in Translation will be given the chance to go up against the big guns at the Academy Awards next month - it's really that wonderful.

Bob Harris (Bill Murray) is a middle-aged actor nearing the end of his shelf-life, reduced to hawking whisky for $2m in Tokyo when he could be "doing a play somewhere." Bemused by Japanese culture and dogged by jetlag and insomnia, Harris is holed up in his hotel, miles from his wife and children, bored and unsure where his future lies. Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) is the young wife of a hip New York photographer, who tags along on one of her husband's excursions to Tokyo only to find she's playing second fiddle to the camera lens. Insecure about her marriage and distressed at her lack of direction, Charlotte spends days sitting in her hotel room window staring over the vast Tokyo cityscape. The pair meet each other in the hotel amenities and bond over boredom and general apathy.

Sofia Coppola has scored an ace with her two leads here; both Murray and Johansson fit the roles superbly with his established world-weariness and her husky-voiced cynicism making the two tourists a perfect match. As the movie progresses and the two characters become closer, the way the couple interact with each other is a joy to watch - there is next to no physical content between them, rather they prefer to share each other's company, laugh at each other's jokes and drink the city dry between them. While their attraction isn't physical, there is definite electricity when they are close - even eye contact between Bob and Charlotte while her serenades her with a Roxy Music classic conveys more feeling and emotion than any kiss ever could. When the couple, exhausted after a night on the town, are sprawled on Charlotte's bed, they just lie and stare at each other intently and wonder where it all went wrong. When she begins to drift into sleep and Bob gently touches her delicate foot, it's a beautiful, non-scripted moment.

Coppola's direction is certainly offbeat, and by the look of things, she's certainly in love with Japan. While Bob is perfectly polite to his Japanese hosts, he'd much rather be elsewhere and his surroundings are always alien to him - his shower head is too short, his curtains open themselves and he can't understand a word anyone is saying. Charlotte, on the other hand, views the city with a wide-eyed innocence, and soaks up the eastern culture like a sponge. This allows Coppola to cram in plenty of inner city montages, with Charlotte's walk through a busy games arcade a particular highlight. Coppola often uses wide shots with large, open spaces to bring across a sense of isolation when the two leads are apart, and even when they share the screen there is distance between them. It's a nice way of symbolising their relationship - even though they've found each other in this far away place, there will always be a world between them.

Lost in Translation is a movie that doesn't present things in black and white, simply because life isn't always like that. While it would have been easy to make Charlotte's husband an unbearable jerk, he's actually just a young guy doing a job who can't keep his wife happy at the same time. Likewise Harris's spouse - she might be faxing him shelving arrangements and Fed-Exing him carpet samples from the other side of the globe, but he'd be quite literally lost with his family. This is why each moment Bob and Charlotte share together is tinged with sadness, because you know there's no way that anything other than a fly-by-night friendship could ever come of their relationship - even in movies, some things aren't meant to happen.

Ultimately though, like its two main protagonists, Life in Translation does feel rather aimless at times, and like most things, settles for the most obvious ending when push comes to shove. Coppola's obsession with showing off the light and airy Tokyo daylight and the neon-drenched nightlife does rather push the main action to one side, as if to hammer it home to us that, even though they're in such beautiful surroundings, they're still unhappy. No matter, because with the two leads on such fine form, every second they're on screen together is simply magic and you won't see a film this year with better leading performances. Flimsy it may be, but Lost in Translation has more heart, more soul and more tenderness than any film I've seen in recent times. It'd be a crime not to recommend such a warm, life-affirming movie.

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