After wowing audiences at the Venice Film Festival with his previous feature, 99 Homes, Ramin Bahrani comes to Cannes with his eagerly-awaited adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. Alas, hopes for a hard-hitting, high-quality film were quickly shot down in flames, for this is not so much a pyrotechnic masterclass as a bit of a damp squib.
The story revolves around fireman Guy Montag (Michael B. Jordan). His job is not to put out fires, but to burn books – or hard drives – as the state strives to eliminate all such ‘graffiti’ from society. Montag is a handsome, photogenic pin-up for the firemen and he pursues his book-burning profession unquestioningly. He lives in luxury, in an antiseptic high-tech apartment, with an all-seeing eye that looks after all his needs, from reminding him to take his eye drops to applauding his sartorial decisions. His boss is Beatty (Michael Shannon, who also starred in 99 Homes). He also loves his job, yet both men have secrets: Beatty has a forbidden pen, which he uses to write down famous quotes, while Montag has murky flashbacks to his childhood and his father. Those memories remain out of focus until he meets Clarisse (Sofia Boutella), a girl from the wrong side of the tracks who often acts as Beatty’s stool pigeon.
One of the most serious issues I had with the film was its use of race: when Montag is introduced to an underground network who have been committing to memory great works, there is a black woman who ‘is Toni Morrison’, an Afro-American who is memorising James Baldwin, a Chinese-American cramming Mao’s Little Red Book, and so on. It doesn’t seem to fit with the rebellion. Why choose some kind of racial profiling to place a person with a book? Does this mean some poor German has to memorise Mein Kampf? It doesn’t make sense and is frankly offensive.
Another issue is with Jordan, whose handsome face does not make up for his somewhat clunking portrayal of Montag, a surprise after his performances in Creed and Black Panther. The relationship with Clarisse is also clumsily handled and there is no spark, no burning passion here, despite all the flames. This is true of the film as a whole: it lacks depth and integrity, which is so disappointing from such a skilled, intelligent director. Shannon is his usual reliable self, but that performance is not enough to shore up the film. The scene of the starling flying to Canada was just the final one of many ridiculous scenes.
However, the subject matter is a vital one as we live in our own dystopian world full of fake news and a depletion of language. As people fall out of love with reading and with books, we risk creating a dystopia of our own making. Ramin Bahrani’s film, while not quite hitting the mark, does a public service by reminding us of the importance of words and our freedom to use them.