Coppola (The Rainmaker), Spielberg (Amistad), and now Scorsese: our three Greatest Modern Directors are languishing in their `worthy' periods. As they grapple with grand-scale, issue-based stories of injustice, their efforts are greeted with lukewarm acknowledgement.
In the US, Kundun has been labelled "Tibetan chic", which is a little strong, as Scorsese's motivating fascination (and Kundun's conundrum) is pain-fully clear: how can a deeply spiritual man who adheres to a policy of non-violence lead his people through a time when a fiercely anti-religious nation is inflicting violence upon them?
Kundun is a portentous seat-shuffler; commendable ambition, plenty to look at, but despite the remarkable story, it is unfortunately soured by storytelling problems. Melissa Mathison's script is often simplistic and weedy. The scene in which the Dalai Lama is summoned to a private meeting with Chairman Mao ought to resonate with the acute hopelessness of Tibet's position. But the Chinese leader's character feels conspicuous and Hollywoodised, with the unfortunate air of a Bond movie villain conveniently outlining his evil plan and philosophy.
Each of the actors playing the different generations of the Dalai Lama is excellent, particularly Tenzin Thuthob Tsarong as the myopic, awkward twentysomething who is wrestling to relate his creed and philosophy to the brutal realities of his responsibilities. But there's little dynamic to the other characters; bowed attendants, barely-visible relatives and conniving Chinese.
Scorsese's presence is palpable (a dazzling pull-back shot revealing the Dalai Lama stranded amid an abstract mass of slaughtered monks; a dream sequence in which a serene fishpond is polluted by an expanding cloud of crimson), but he almost obscures his political point beneath the layers of eye-candy.
If you can switch off your reflex for popcorn-cud crud, and sit still for two-and-a-half hours, Kundun is a reasonably absorbing Sunday afternoon filler.
An artful diversion, with breathtaking visual splendour, but marred by messy, episodic narrative. Whether it leaves you soothed and serene or bored blind, you'll still be yearning for the return of the mean-streets maestro.