9 March 2011


In the echelons of inaccurate pull-quotes, there shall be a special place for the Total Film assessment of the snappily titled sci-fi romance, The Adjustment Bureau, which appears on the poster and in many of the TV spots. Total Film called it "Bourne Meets Inception", when it's not really like either of those things, but hey, we're in a week where everything is "Bourne Meets" something or other.

So, what The Adjustment Bureau is really like is the Phillip K. Dick story from which it was inspired. David is a Congressman who looks set for a meteoric rise in the world of politics. He has a chance encounter with a dancer called Elise, and he's instantly smitten. However, when he meets her again a short while later, a powerful force interferes. A bureau of men in hats and suits posit that David and Elise were never meant to meet again, and they try their utmost to rectify the course of the plan that is rapidly unravelling as this couple fall deeper and deeper in love.

If we have to compare The Adjustment Bureau to something other than what it actually is, which is a romantic thriller with an otherworldly and theological concept, the comparison that most immediately struck me while watching it was with A Matter of Life and Death. Particularly in its later movements, the similarities are obvious when you're looking at a film about a couple trying to prove that they're destined to be together, even in the face of a higher force that is trying to divide them.  

A Matter of Life and Death is one of my favourite films of all time, so this film would inevitably suffer from that comparison, but it also means that I enjoyed it quite a lot. The masterstroke as far as this one is concerned is either in the casting or in what the lead actors managed to construct when they were thrown together. Matt Damon and Emily Blunt are on fire in this film, whenever they appear together, with a scorching and yet very charming chemistry that really gets you on side.

However, throughout their extended Meet-Cute scenes, the sci-fi elements are established via these men in hats and suits being rather sinister in what they believe is doing right by David and Elise. In the lower rankings of the titular bureau, you get Anthony Mackie, who's ultimately quite friendly and pragmatic, but further up, you get the more rigid and authoritarian John Slattery. Go higher, and you get Terence "General Zod" Stamp, which gives a sense of the ingrained values of this powerful organisation.

They are the opposing force in what is basically a debate about determinism, and the role of free will. If there's a problem with the film, it is that the rules are too vaguely established. We are intended to follow that the Adjustment Bureau give human beings less individual choice in their own destinies because actual free will is a failed experiment that threw up the Dark Ages, two world wars and the Cuban missile crisis. That doesn't explain how their level of control allows for the current atrocities committed all over the world after those events.

These men work in mysterious ways, which is as much as I'm prepared to say without just spitting it out and telling you what we're meant to figure out ourselves while watching the film. In that framework, I can kind of forgive the film some of its vagaries, not least because it's just a very engaging watch. On the downside, I was less enamored of the abrupt time-skips that were brought in throughout the film, because nothing disrupts the momentum more than a sudden "Three years later". The film doesn't exactly outstay its welcome, but there are surely better and more inventive ways to illustrate a vast leap in the narrative.

The Adjustment Bureau was put back to this month from its original release date last summer, and despite having highly anticipated it for a long time, I can now appreciate the wisdom of that decision. In a relatively quiet month at the cinema, it has room to breathe, rather than being shot out of a cannon as counter-programming to Piranha or The Expendables. It's very easy to like, and slightly harder to dismiss some of its flaws, but crucially, it pitches a compelling romance between Damon and Blunt while working through a passage between romantic thriller and sci-fi parable.

The Adjustment Bureau is now showing in cinemas nationwide.
If you've seen The Adjustment Bureau, why not share your comments below?

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

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