Madonna's career in the cinema is a strange one. One could easily dismiss films like this one and "Body of Evidence" as the vanity projects of a conceited pop diva who can't act for toffee but imagines that her ability to belt out a hit tune automatically qualifies her as the next Meryl Streep or Helen Mirren. (And there are indeed several other pop divas who are labouring under that particular delusion).
And yet there is more to Madge's career than that. She is also capable of giving perfectly creditable performances in decent films like "Desperately Seeking Susan", "Who's That Girl?" and "A League of Their Own", and was particularly good in "Evita". Which makes it all the more frustrating when something as bad as "Swept Away" comes along.
When I saw the film I assumed it was a rip-off of the successful eighties screwball comedy "Overboard". The main character in "Overboard" (played by Goldie Hawn) is called Joanna Stayton; here she is Amber Leighton. I wondered whether the Stayton/Leighton rhyme was a deliberate hint by the scriptwriter that the earlier film was his inspiration. Both Joanna and Amber are the spoilt and bitchy trophy-wives of wealthy businessmen. Both women go for a cruise aboard a luxury yacht, in the course of which they manage to alienate a working-class man (here a sailor named Giuseppe) by their arrogant and unreasonable behaviour. In both cases the tables are turned by a sudden stroke of fortune, meaning that the man now has the upper hand, allowing him to take revenge on his former tormentor. And (these being romantic comedies) in both cases the ill-matched couple end up falling in love.
Since seeing the film, however, I have learnt that it is a remake of a 1974 Italian film of the same name. (At least it had the same name in English; the original Italian title was the less snappy "Travolti da un Insolito Destino nell'Azzurro Mare d'Agosto"). Adriano Giannini, who plays Amber's lover here, is the son of the actor who played the equivalent role in 1974.
Nevertheless, I still feel that comparisons between "Swept Away" and "Overboard" are illuminating, because the films, despite their similarity in theme, are very different in tone and quality, "Overboard" being far superior. Part of the reason is the way the lead characters are played. Yes, Joanna is a prize bitch, but Goldie Hawn never forgets that she is acting in a comedy and plays her with an appropriate lightness of touch, preparing us for the transformation in the later scenes when Joanna's more human side begins to come through so that, psychologically, we can accept the romance which develops between her and Kurt Russell's character. (Logically, of course, the plot of "Overboard" is quite implausible, but screwball comedies enjoy a certain immunity from the laws of logic).
Madonna, however, appears not to understand the difference between comedy and serious drama, playing Amber with a fierce earnestness far more appropriate to the latter, so that, whereas Joanna is amusingly nasty, Amber is merely hateful. In the later scenes we can never accept her as a person capable of love or affection. Beyond being the son of a famous father, Giannini has few qualifications for his role. His English is not good and he speaks his lines as though he had learnt them phonetically, without any real understanding. His main technique for expressing emotion is to rely upon a single expression, a farouche scowl, presumably indicating his discontent at his treatment by Amber. Giuseppe, incidentally, is a Communist, something which indicates how much Hollywood politics have changed since the Cold War ended. In any American film made before 1989, except perhaps Beatty's "Reds", "Communist" generally meant "fanatical enemy of democracy". In this film it means something romantically exotic and thrillingly dangerous, like some fierce but beautiful beast of prey.
The film is also badly directed (by Madonna's then husband, Guy Ritchie). It does not flow smoothly and it is visually unattractive to look at, being bathed in a harsh, glaring light. Its main flaw, however, is neither the acting nor the direction but its objectionable world view. When Amber is shipwrecked on a deserted island with Giuseppe, he realises that she is unable to find food for herself and that his skills as a fisherman now give him the upper hand. He takes advantage of their situation not only to humiliate her but also to abuse her physically and on one occasion sexually assaults her. In real life these two would probably have ended up murdering one another, but this is Hollywood, not real life, and they end up falling passionately in love. To call this misogynistic view of the relationship between the sexes "objectionable" would be an understatement. Even "Neanderthal" seems inadequate, given that Neanderthal women were by all accounts hefty creatures, built like the proverbial brick outhouse and doubtless unwilling to stand for any nonsense from their menfolk.
The critical and commercial failure of "Swept Away" finally put an end to the Material Girl's acting career. She could afford to shrug off the controversy aroused by "Body of Evidence"- a bad film, certainly, but by no means as bad as this one- on the basis of "there's no such thing as bad publicity", but when bad publicity turns to public ridicule even a confirmed attention junkie like Madonna must realise it's time to call it a day. The film swept the board at the 2002 Golden Raspberry Awards, including (inter alia) "Worst Picture", "Worst Actress" for Madge and "Worst Director" for Ritchie. (Giannini unaccountably missed out on "Worst Actor"). Never have those raspberries been so well-deserved. 1/10, only the fifth film out of more than a thousand to which I have given the minimum mark.
Action / Comedy / Romance
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1 hr 29 min