This film is based on the Joseph Conrad novel. The time is just before the outbreak of World War I in the early years of the 20th Century when Indonesia was known as the Dutch East Indies. It stars Willem Dafoe as Axel Heyst a recluse who started a coalmine on a remote Indonesian island and it failed but he continues to live on isolated from the rest of the world. One day he takes a boat to Surabaya to pick up furniture that has come from the estate of his father in San Francisco. While there he stays at a local hotel where a traveling women’s orchestra is playing. The women are treated as prostitutes and at the request of one of the women, Alma, (played by Irene Jacob) who is about to be sold to the hotel owner, Heyst secretly rescues her and takes her to his island. There they fall in love.
This could be the end of the story. Everyone could live happily ever after….right? But this is a Conrad story, no Hollywood happy ending here. The hotel owner, in order to get revenge, tells some scoundrels that Heyst has a fortune hidden on the island and three men go there to get the money. Sam Neill who is a despicable gambler and all-around rougue plays the lead scoundrel. Heyst is suspicious of them from the moment they land on the island pretending to be lost. But he has no way of effectively defending himself. He tells his wife to hide in the forest, but instead she prepares to kill one of the men and tragically is shot and killed in the process.
The end has the three intruders all dead, Heyst burning his house down and disappearing. End of story. Except the man who is telling the story explains in the final lines of the movie, speaking about the relationship between Alma and Heyst: “She saved his life because she taught him how to love---that was her victory.”
So what are the messages in this film?
That scoundrels eventually get what they deserve?
That women treated poorly deserve to be rescued?
That settling for a life as a recluse is not what life should be about?
That taking risks IS what life is about?
That love is the most important part of life?
Heyst was willing to die for Alma and Alma, in turn, was willing to die for Heyst.
Is this the ultimate definition of love?
Love’s gift is eternal…Heyst has lost her but her gift to him has changed him and made him a better human being. So, if you love, you risk. So, even if you lose your life in that risk, it is worthwhile.