The monk William of Baskerville (Sean Connery) and his novice Adso (Christian Slater) arrive at a Benedictine abbey in northern Italy to join a Papal debate on the poverty of Christ. He instead finds himself pushed into investigating an apparent suicide by one of the scribes in the abbey, an investigation that soon reveals a series of murders. Brother William’s task is soon complicated by the arrival of Bernardo Gui (F. Murray Abraham), an inquisitor intent on finding a demonic purpose behind the deaths.
Italian author Umberto Eco’s novel The Name of the Rose is widely held up as a master work of post-modern literature. It is a deliberately inter-textual work, relying on allusions to pre-existing literature in order to develop its meaning, and is rich in symbolism and allusion. What works in prose, however, does not automatically work on screen. Jean-Jacques Annaud’s 1986 film adaptation is a strikingly modernist work, stripping back much of the allusions in favour of an effectively presented murder mystery. This is, by the by, no criticism of Annaud’s adaptation, but rather a neat observation on the differences between book and film. A good adaptation – and I believe this is an excellent one – takes the story and characters from one medium and works out the most effective manner in which to present them in another. In this regard Annaud does a sensational job. It is a different experience as a film than it is as a book, but hugely entertaining in its own right.
1986 marked the renaissance of Sean Connery’s film career. Only three years earlier he was back playing his signature role of James Bond, and his only on-screen role between that and 1986 was the Green Knight in the poorly received Sword of the Valiant. Connery’s casting as Brother William in The Name of the Rose so displeased distributor Columbia Pictures that they almost dropped the film entirely. Thanks to a BAFTA-winning performance here, and a showy turn in the cult fantasy film Highlander, Connery was able to kick his career into high gear. In the five years following The Name of the Rose he starred in the likes of The Untouchables (for which he won an Oscar), The Presidio, Family Business, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and The Hunt for Red October. His performance here is wonderful, as he plays Brother William with a combination of warmth, skepticism, and a series of thoughtful silences. The warmth is the key aspect to his role, since with the film’s setting inside a monastery of medieval monks there is precious little warmth elsewhere. He is also a visibly modern character in a medieval context: he conducts his murder investigation with the attention to detail and logical process akin to Sherlock Holmes, while wandering the halls of a monastery ruled by religious dogma and blind superstition.
A very young Christian Slater does his best as William’s novice Adso, but the other highlights of the cast are really in the supporting roles. F. Murray Abraham is in full scenery-chewing mode as the zealot Bernardo Gui, while Ron Perlman dives into his role as the mentally challenged and physically disabled monk Salvatore. Michael Lonsdale plays a dignified and reluctant abbot. Ultimately the film’s various performances feel secondary to the central mystery: who is murdering the monks?
It is a well-developed mystery narrative, peppered with clues and regular discoveries, and by the film’s climax the answers to William’s questions are intriguing and original. The atmosphere is tremendous – Annaud shot the film in an actual medieval-period monastery – and gives the entire work a rich, ominous tone. To call the film a classic would be to stretch its merits too far, but this is certainly a very entertaining murder mystery, boasting some strong actors and an evocative and thought-provoking story. Given its source material, it is a vastly better adaptation than I think its audience could reasonably expect.