Are You With Us?:
Waking the Dead

By Shalimar Sahota

May 6, 2010

I've seen your blue dong, Doctor Manhattan!

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The 1986 novel by Scott Spencer, Waking the Dead, made a fan out of director Keith Gordon. “I just knew I had to make it into a film, he said. “I just could not stop crying when I got to the end of the book.”

Fielding Pierce (Crudup) is an aspiring politician, who just might be going crazy during his run for congress, as he is haunted by the memory of his former activist girlfriend Sarah Williams (Connelly). Having died while assisting Chilean refugees during a terrorist bombing ten years ago, Fielding starts to get weirded out after hearing her voice one night. Things get even more bizarre when he starts seeing a lot of people that just so happen to look like her, and even runs after what might be her ghost, causing Fielding to contemplate whether or not she’s even dead.

This is quite the unconventional political drama with elements of the supernatural, as well as frequently flitting back and fourth from Fielding’s election run to flashbacks of his former life with Sarah. While they both believe in bringing about change, their methods are different. Having studied law, Fielding plays it by the book, climbing the political hierarchy, whereas Sarah has little respect for the political system and is more outspoken and radical in her approach. Opposites attract? Unusually it attracted Jodie Foster to come on board as an executive producer, so far making this the only feature film with her involvement solely as a producer.

The film bears a striking similarity to The Constant Gardner, based on John le Carré’s 2001 novel, which was also adapted by Fernando Meirelles. Although that didn’t have any supernatural tendencies, it was more about finding justice and meaning behind the death of a loved one. In Waking the Dead, Fielding is just trying to move along.


He attempts to do some digging for information very late in the film, but more because he wants to find meaning behind the weird occurrences.

There doesn’t seem to be any big conspiracy behind Sarah’s death, only to assume that what she was doing was dangerous. There also doesn’t seem to be a reason behind her timely reappearance. This so-called ghost of Sarah certainly loves Fielding enough to want to see him and hear his voice again. Yet, she also loves him enough to time her haunting and have him go crazy during the run up to an election, probably the most important point in his life. Why not earlier, unless the plan is to somehow have him rethink what he’s campaigning for.

Crudup and Connelly had worked together before on Inventing the Abbotts, so some kind of working chemistry was already frothing. It’s their performances that stand out as the strongest part of the film. The best showcase for this is a great long take on a subway train, as they both discuss a party they’ve just been to, a sequence where Gordon reveals that some of the dialogue was improvised, adding a touch of spontaneity. Also, in the moments when we find Fielding sitting in front of a table - once in front of Chilean refugees, and towards the end in front of his family - he delivers moving speeches, the former being somewhat (unintentionally) hilarious, the latter being one that stirs the tear ducts.

It seems to work but does feel muddled with the frequent time jumping, though to be fair, this is how the story is told in the novel. It feels obvious that something has been left out, since it does play like a collection of important bits. Gordon so loved the novel that in trying to craft a perfect adaptation, his first cut of the film was near enough three hours long. If you’re hungry for some additional sense, the option is there to rummage through over 40 minutes of generally good deleted scenes on the DVD, though releasing an extended cut might have been a better idea. As in most cases, not having read the novel, it’s quite possibly a story that just works better on the page than it does as a film.

Politics without comedy doesn’t have a must-see factor attached to it. Even with its $8.5 million budget, it was a loss for the production company Polygram, released in March 2000 on a limited release that pulled in just over $300,000. Polygram was already suffering debts and in the process of merging, making Waking the Dead one of the final few films they released before being eaten up by Universal.

Thankfully, the focus is more on the relationship between Fielding and Sarah, rather than the politics itself. Occasionally lethargic, it’s the performances from Crudup and Connelly, as well as just wanting to know the final outcome, which sustains the interest; how their views only end up pushing them further apart and yet they still feel a connection, even after death.

Directed by - Keith Gordon

Written by – Robert Dillon, (based on Scott Spencer’s novel)

Starring – Billy Crudup (Fielding Pierce), Jennifer Connelly (Sarah Williams), Molly Parker (Juliet Beck), Janet McTeer (Caroline Pierce), Paul Hipp (Danny Pierce), Sandra Oh (Kim), Hal Holbrook (Isaac Green)

Length – 101 minutes

Cert – 15 / R



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