Mountains of the Moon

136 minutes 1990

Bob Rafelson's ambitious and elusive 1990 account of the African explorations of Richard Burton (Patrick Bergin) and John Speke (Iain Glen) in the mid-19th century, based on the biographical novel Burton and Speke by William Harrison and the journals of Burton and Speke, and scripted by Harrison and Rafelson. The search for the source of the river Nile, filled with adventures and hardships, makes up most of the film, and it works fairly well (with attractive location photography by Roger Deakins). What works less well is the elliptical account of the two men's troubled friendship, which eventually supplants the first story—some debatable liberties have been taken with the historical facts to further muddle matters. (Making Burton an anticolonialist and Speke a repressed homosexual are two examples; the depiction of Burton's wife Isabel—nicely played by Fiona Shaw—is a third.) Rafelson appears to be attempting to make a comment on Burton's heroic distance from Victorian England, but only certain parts of this strategy register with any persuasiveness. With Richard E. Grant, John Savident, and James Villiers.

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