Gallingly high-minded and absolutely superficial, this is a wildly conservative adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s novel, the favoured dystopia of maudlin, self-involved, bookish teenagers. A feeble, transparent film, Fahrenheit 451 would drive anyone to burn down a library, given that the reasons to preserve literature remain resolutely unclear. Director Ramin Bahrani shows no obvious love for the printed word, no sensibility towards language, no awareness of how books can be banal, disquieting and profound. Pass the flamethrower.
Montag (Michael B Jordan, shorn of charisma) is the Master Trooper page burner, first lieutenant to Beatty (Michael Shannon, shorn of original roles). Powered by machismo, mob mentality and a lifetime supply of druggy eye-drops, the pair lead a group of “firemen” who torch fiction and nonfiction, hard drives and hardbacks, under the orders of the mysterious Ministry. Both men have a fraught relationship with their profession; both have doubts that they repress through public shouting and secretive scribbling.
Informant Clarrisse (Sofia Boutella, shorn of any indication of life) encourages Montag’s wavering faith, showing him a harmonica and reading aloud. We anticipate a volte-face. More interesting is Beatty’s internal dispute – he is a man seduced and appalled by literary possibilities, filled with loathing and excitement at apprehending the power of the canon. Unfortunately, Shannon bows to the requirements of being a straight-up villain.
There’s a basic satisfaction from the reading list, as greats works are cited implausibly and often: Joyce’s Ulysses as a makeshift suicide belt, Clarisse as a literal embodiment of Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, Beatty as a Dostoevsky mouthpiece and Hobbes critic. There’s much to laugh and despair at. Nowhere are the playfulness, guile and intelligence found in these authors. Even Leviathan has a sense of levity.
There are several awkward supporting roles: an apparently autistic boy (who has read every book but still uses “very” as an intensifier) is given a shallow, dismissive, problematic part, and an oafish, aggressive fireman barely features before receiving his rites. Both characters are used and abused. This mishandling speaks to a general mess: the pacing and plot are just perverse. Events are compressed, motives disregarded, context unexplained.
The realm of literature is not necessarily a democratic space, nor a conduit for liberty and expression. Literature troubles, disturbs, complicates, censors. As the film acknowledges, it can bring chaos. But books offer a process of reordering, not only disorder. Fahrenheit 451 trades on the continual fear and danger of violent death with a fundamental lack of curiosity, a ubiquitous numbness to the complexity of language. It is poor, solitary, nasty, brutish and – mercifully – just under two hours long.
Fahrenheit 451 does not have a UK release date yet.
Read more reviews from our Cannes Film Festival 2018 coverage here.
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Watch the trailer for Fahrenheit 451 here: