Between1929 until 2005, about 20 novels and short stories by Joseph Conrad have been adapted into films, including 1952’s Face to Face (The Secret Sharer), and the most famous, 1979’s Apocalypse Now (Heart of Darkness). Several filmmakers have cut their teeth on Conrad, including Ridley Scott whose Duellists (The Dual), won the Best Debut Film award at the Cannes Film Festival in 1977.
Producer Peter Fudakowski (Tsoti, The Last September) has also chosen a Conrad novella, The Secret Sharer, for his feature film debut as Writer and Director, although it is unlikely to win any major awards. Despite its authentic locations and vivid atmosphere, Fudakowski’s attempts to make the story ‘relevant to modern audiences’ and more commercial prove his undoing.
Captain Konrad (Jack Laskey) has finally achieved his ambition of commandeering a ship, only to be faced with a moral dilemma. His assignment is to sail an aging freighter from the Gulf of Siam (Thailand) to Shanghai. The unscrupulous Chinese owner presents the hard-up Konrad with a large sum of money and an order that he sink the ship for insurance purposes upon arrival in Shanghai.
The motley crew treats the inexperienced young, foreign captain with contempt and suspicion. Konrad, plagued with doubt about his competence, tries to assert himself and instill discipline in a way that wins him no allies.
His first night on board, Konrad notices a human form hanging onto the ship’s ladder and pulls a beautiful, young bi-lingual Chinese woman onto the deck. The woman, Li (Zhu Zhu, Cloud Atlas), claims to have swum from a neighboring ship (her husband was the captain!) after accidentally killing the first mate whose insubordination was jeopardizing the ship during a gale. Despite laws about harbouring stowaways, for the remainder of the film Konrad hides the woman in his cabin while together, they work out a way to save her, and his ship.
Laskey, a handsome Shakespearian actor, either has learned to speak some Chinese or is very well-dubbed, which makes his appointment as Captain more convincing. He expresses his self-doubt well although his transformation from a weak and desperate man struggling with his conscience to a confident leader who wins the men over, is more evident from the script than from the acting. The film’s strength is the atmospheric old freighter and the authentic locations around the Gulf of Thailand, the exact location of Conrad’s story.
Secret Sharer is let down by the decision to make the eponymous hero a heroine. The misguided introduction of a sexual attraction between the beautiful Li and the celibate captain distracts from the power of the story as a bildungsroman. In the novella, the captain is intentionally nameless and the secret sharer is his doppelganger or alter-ego. He not only looks like the captain, but had been an apprentice on the same training ship. The two men represent the two sides of the perfect captain and, in more abstract terms, the dual aspect of man. The novella focuses on how the secret sharer complements the captain, giving him the confidence, people and navigational skills and daring he needs.
Fudakowski presents Li as the unmarried Konrad’s perfect partner and shoots the scenes with Li in a romantic, unreal style in contrast to the harsh reality on deck, as though she were a dream. She is, however, a very real and highly improbable character, who is not rendered any more convincing by Zhu Zhu.
The insertion of the moral dilemma in the shape of the Chinese insurance fraud is an interesting additional obstacle, but proves to be a distraction as it is not well integrated into the story. It might have cost Fudakowski the Chinese Government’s backing, too, as they demanded certain changes.
The novella was inspired by the true story of a mate on the Cutty Sark who, in the 1880s, killed an insubordinate sailor and escaped ship’s arrest by jumping overboard – to his death or a new destiny. Fudakowski takes the metaphorical subtly out of the ending and returns it to the more pedestrian realms of romance.
Joyce Glasser – MT film reviewer