Blu-ray Review: DEATH WATCH [1980]

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Review: Death Watch / Cert: 12 / Director: Bertrand Tavernier / Screenplay: David Ryfield / Starring: Harvey Keitel, Romy Schneider, Harry Dean Stanton, Therese Liotard, William Russell, Max Von Sydow/ Release Date: Out Now 

Death Watch was originally released in 1980 and the film’s distributors at the time were concerned that the movie’s concept of ‘reality’ television and the story’s depiction of the ruthless cynicism and lust of TV producers chasing ratings and headlines at any cost was just asking too much of a cinema audience. In a post-Big Brother world where it seems that almost anyone will do almost anything to get on TV, Death Watch doesn’t seem much like science-fiction any more, more like a startling and disturbing documentary starring people in unfashionable clothes.

In the near future (probably now the past from the perspective of when Death Watch was made) technology allows miniature cameras to be imbedded into the human eye so the ‘wearer’ can record raw footage of... well, just about anything. Roddy (Keitel) is an experienced cameraman employed by NTV and its head honcho Vincent Ferriman (Stanton) to spy on and record the last days of Katherine Mortenhoe (Schneider) who has been diagnosed with an incurable disease. NTV have already begun promoting and publicising their latest ultimate ‘reality’ TV show and Katherine agrees, in exchange for a large sum of money, to co-operate with the production. But as soon as she’s got the money Katherine goes on the run and finds herself inadvertently in the company of Roddy whom she befriends despite the fact that, unbeknownst to her, he has his own hidden agenda.

Death Watch is, of course, extraordinarily prescient and the idea of a ‘reality’ show where the story of the last days of a human life is told for sensationalist, headline-grabbing reasons nowadays doesn’t seem as horribly-unlikely as it must have seemed back in 1980 (bearing in mind that sober modern documentary shows have wandered down a similar path fairly recently but with a little more taste and decorum than Death Watch envisages). This is a powerful, sobering, bleak little movie, shot in and around the less photogenic areas of Glasgow in 1980 and dominated by powerful performances by a youthful-looking Keitel and a compelling Romy Schneider. It’s a wordy, atmospheric, rather dense picture - this is proper science-fiction, challenging and thought-provoking - a story about people and morality and the question we’re asking more and more over thirty years later; how intrusive can popular culture be allowed to become in the name of mass entertainment and are there now no corners of the life/death experience that can remain private and personal?

Despite its sluggish pace and lack of action - one street tussle aside there are no fights and, indeed, no real physical conflict at all - Death Watch presents a fascinating and recognisable dystopia and, despite a tendency towards pretension and melodrama, it’s a striking, haunting and ultimately tragic tale.

Extras: Interview with the director / photo gallery / trailer

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