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HARLEQUIN (1980)

Written By:

Ian White
Harlequin

Even a rising politician like Nick Rast (David Hemmings) can’t have everything. While his career is taking off – mostly thanks to the mysterious disappearance of his nearest rival – his marriage has broken down and his young son is dying of leukaemia. But then the enigmatic Gregory Wolfe (Robert Powell) materialises seemingly out of nowhere, sits at the boy’s bedside, and apparently cures him. Despite Rast’s scepticism, the child immediately improves. Soon afterwards, Wolfe has entered Rast’s household and is beginning to exert his powers on the politician’s beautiful wife. But is he really just a mysterious healer or does Wolfe have a more sinister agenda?

Produced during the Ozploitation explosion of the late ‘70s/early ‘80s, Harlequin (also known by the much better title Dark Forces) is a gem of a film, and very different from all the other Australian output. It is also, arguably, screenwriter Everett De Roche’s finest work and, considering De Roche was also responsible for Australian genre classics like Patrick, Long Weekend, Road Games, and Razorback that’s high praise indeed. Taking inspiration from the story of the famous Russian mystic Rasputin and weaving in elements of outrageous glam-rock fantasy that must surely have inspired Jim Henson when he created Labyrinth’s Goblin King (in fact, we wouldn’t be surprised if David Bowie was on De Roche’s mind when he wrote the screenplay), Harlequin is a fascinating if flawed psycho-thriller that deserves much more attention than it received. True, without Powell’s charismatic lead performance the whole thing might not play quite so well, the few special effects are ridiculously dated and the ending doesn’t make a whole lot of sense (especially given Wolfe’s alleged abilities) but Harlequin is a film that will still keep you thinking long after the credits have rolled. Like Gregory Wolfe himself, it exerts a strange mesmerising power.

Umbrella’s new Blu-ray is as strong a presentation as we could expect for a movie that’s mostly been forgotten, and it is head and shoulders above previous UK home video incarnations. The image is slightly washed out (although this is a restored HD master it’s still hamstrung by its source limitations) but the audio is strong and there is a healthy bunch of diverting extras to enjoy – but make sure you’ve watched the film first. By far the best special feature is the audio commentary by director Simon Wincer and producer Antony Ginnane, ported over from the US release. Harlequin was the film that launched Wincer’s career, and it’s interesting to hear him discuss it through the prism of more than thirty years.

Although not quite as magic as it could have been, Harlequin still weaves a serious spell.

 

Ian White

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