An Australian journalist and a British embassy officer have a romantic fling while surrounded by political instability in 1965 Indonesia.
Foreign correspondent Guy Hamilton (Mel Gibson) receives his new assignment in Jakarta, Indonesia, a country with rampant instability and high corruption. The country’s president, Sukarno, is an avowed nationalist who has been fiercely opposed by both the state communist party (the PKI) and the Muslim-majority Indonesian military.
Western journalists — including Hamilton’s own colleagues from the US, the UK, and New Zealand — struggle to gain adequate information. Hamilton feels awkward around his colleagues, as they view him as an inexperienced hotshot. Adding to Hamilton’s frustration, his predecessor left Indonesia suddenly and didn’t inform him of what to expect.
Billy Kwan (Linda Hunt), a Chinese-Australian photographer born with dwarfism, turns out to be an unlikely ally for Hamilton, giving him valuable insider information and arranging key interviews with prominent political figures. While smart and intuitive, Billy’s motivations don’t always remain clear to Hamilton.
Billy introduces Hamilton to Jill Bryant (Sigourney Weaver), a beautiful assistant at the British embassy, and the two eventually begin a romance. However, Hamilton discovers several important bits of information that could signal a coming coup against Sukarno, including the bombshell revelation that the Indonesian communists are plotting to overthrow Sukarno by using arms from China. Despite the danger, Hamilton plans to cover the impending communist uprising, much to Jill’s chagrin. In the midst of turmoil, can Hamilton keep his career and his love life intact?
One of the classics of Australian New Wave cinema, The Year of Living Dangerously was based upon C.J. Koch’s novel of the same name. Koch wrote the novel in 1978 and based it on some of his brother’s own experiences in Indonesia as a foreign journalist during the same time period.
Koch’s novel soon drew many suitors who wanted to adapt the political romance into a film. While there was no shortage of contenders, eventually Peter Weir bought the rights and signed on to direct. Weir was riding high following his 1981 war film Gallipoli, but The Year of Living Dangerously would prove to be a unique challenge for him.
Koch wrote an early draft of the script, but Weir didn’t like it, prompting a few re-writes from screenwriter Alan Sharp and Gallipoli collaborator David Williamson. Weir and Williamson eventually wrote the final draft, and Koch estimated that the screenplay was 45% his work, and 55% Weir and Williamson.
Funding was initially easy to come by due to Weir’s status in the Australian film community at the time, but the South Australian Film Commission was eventually forced to back out. Weir’s agent suggested that MGM, which was already involved in North American distribution, provide the final budget. The Year of Living Dangerously was green-lit with a budget of AU$6 million and was one of the first international co-productions between the US and Australia (as well as one of the most expensive Aussie films ever made at that point).
In addition to Williamson, Weir brought in Gallipoli cinematographer Russell Boyd and hired another previous collaborator, Mel Gibson, as his lead. Gibson was already a household name in Australia due to Gallipoli and the first two Mad Max films.
For the role of dwarfish photographer Billy Kwan, Weir originally cast David Atkins, a dancer, but during rehearsals, Weir felt like the chemistry between Gibson and Atkins was lacking. A few more people auditioned, but Weir soon made the unlikely choice to cast Asian-American Linda Hunt in the role of Billy. Hunt won the role and eventually earned the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress.
Filming was completed mostly in Australia and the Philippines; due to the movie’s political overtones, the Indonesian government refused to allow the production to film in Jakarta (the movie remained banned there until 1999). Both Weir and Gibson received death threats from Filipino Muslims who had been led to believe that the movie was anti-Islam; this later forced the production to move to Sydney and complete principal photography there. (Gibson brushed off the death threats in a subsequent interview, quipping, “It wasn’t really that bad…I mean, if they meant to kill us, why send a note?”)
The Year of Living Dangerously was released in November 1982 in Australia and February 1983 in North America, grossing over $10 million in both countries combined. The film was also nominated for the Palme d’Or at the ’83 Cannes Film Festival.
I really enjoyed this movie — it’s got a excellent tone, pace and some really good cinematography while blending elements of suspense, romance, and drama. Gibson, Weaver, and Hunt are all outstanding. I found The Year of Living Dangerously to be about halfway between the sweeping romance of Casablanca and the harrowing, pulse-pounding nature of The Last King of Scotland. Most of these specific plot elements work really well, although there are some minor tonal inconsistencies from scene to scene. Apart from that, The Year of Living Dangerously is well-made and entertaining, and I’d highly recommend it if you like political thrillers, romantic thrillers, or Gibson’s pre-Lethal Weapon filmography.
- Released 1982
- Directed by Peter Weir
- Produced by Jim McElroy
- Screenplay by Peter Weir and David Williamson
- Director of Photography — Russell Boyd
- Music by Maurice Jarre
- Edited by William M. Anderson
- Starring Mel Gibson, Sigourney Weaver, Linda Hunt, Bill Kerr, Michael Murphy, Noel Ferrier, Bembol Roco, Paul Sonkkila
- Rated PG