“Some books are dangerous, not to be opened with impunity.”
Controversial director Roman Polanski manages to pull off the difficult Hitchcock-esque trick of keeping the viewer enthralled by the fairly sedate story of a search for forbidden knowledge hidden among the closely guarded manuscript collections of Europe’s ageing dynasties.
Johnny Depp actually plays a character, rather than a caricature in his portrayal of Dean Corso, a mercenary freelance bibliophile. Concerned only with profit, Corso is employed to authenticate a rare and valuable occult work, which is itself steeped in rumour and folklore. As his investigations continue, a formerly hidden, and yet altogether darker design slowly reveals itself, finally crossing the boundary between historical curiosity and contemporary reality.
Veteran actor Frank Langella is definitely the unsung hero of The Ninth Gate, and he’s more than a match for Depp on screen. His understated menace as the pathologically cold publishing magnate Boris Balkan completely convinces the viewer that they are in the presence of a man who has already gone to, and will go to any lengths to achieve his dark design. He is the shadowy and obsessive puppet master, controlling events from within his private library or from the end of the phone line, seemingly much closer to the action than he appears to be.
The excellent screenwriting and direction effectively immerses the viewer in Corso’s journey from disinterested sceptic to fervent believer, as he is drawn ever deeper into a hidden world of secret power, and those archetypal ideas from whence that power flows. Every clue followed and revelation discovered is skilfully crafted to convince both character and viewer that there is indeed a vein of fundamental truth running through these esoteric texts that the modern world has deliberately chosen first to ignore and then to forget.
Any casual or serious student of occultism will have a field day with the symbolism so skilfully woven throughout this feast of hidden metaphors and mixed messages. At the same time, the Ninth Gate is also a very playful movie, which somehow manages to exploit endless clichés of the genre while still remaining fresh and entertaining. The homages to both Hammer and Wheatley as the movie builds to its conclusion are some personal favourites.
The Ninth Gate also reminds us of the old adage that the destination is nothing without the journey, as Dean Corso undergoes his own everyday initiation into the black arts, fearing neither noose nor fire, to play the greatest of games and win.
Like all great occult books and movies, The Ninth Gate can be revisited time and time again, always offering something new and fresh as life’s journey changes, shapes and influences the eyes through which we see it. Watch the trailer here, and also a nice clip of Dean Corso and Baroness Kessler. You’ll find yourself immersed inside the inescapable riddles of the dark arts before you even know it’s happened.