Isabelle Eberhardt (1990)

Genres - Adventure  |   Run Time - 113 min.  |   Countries - Australia, France  |  
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Isabelle Eberhardt is a flawed docudrama, but the woman whose life it depicts was such a fascinating subject that the film can't help but be somewhat interesting. Director Ian Pringle has a sure hand when it comes to the film's visuals. The images are a bit too dark in spots, but director of photography Manuel Teran's (Before the Rain) painterly compositions capture the both the beauty of the desert and the harshness of Eberhardt's (Mathilda May) nomadic life. Peter O'Toole is charming in a supporting role, and May gives a strong performance, but the script doesn't quite seem to have a handle on this enigmatic figure. A convert to Islam, a woman who dressed like a man, chugged absinthe, and reputedly slept with half the French Foreign legion (though her sexual exploits are toned down in the film), Eberhardt also wrote brilliantly of desert life, joined a secret (and all male, obviously) society of Sufi Muslims, criticized the colonial French government in her writing, and spied against the Arabs for the French. Perhaps it's not the fault of Pringle and screenwriter Stephen Sewell that the audience still doesn't really know who she is at the end of the film. But they could have kept the pace up a bit better, they shouldn't have tried to portray her as some kind of activist for Arab rights, as she wasn't, and they might have taken more care to ensure that the English spoken by their international cast was clearly discernable to native speakers. Unfortunately, the film is not quite good enough to recommend to those who aren't familiar with Isabelle Eberhardt's life and work, and those who are familiar with her are likely to be disappointed.