July 18, 1988 12:00 PM

The nerve of this movie. It makes you work to like it. First, you have to get past that title, the worst since The Milagro Beanfield War. Then there’s the opening. Words, words, words crawl across the screen to supply a fidget-inducing history lesson: The year is 1908. The place is a Greek island occupied by corrupt (and dominant) Turks, resentful Greeks arming in the hills and a motley collection of international expatriates conniving to gobble up what’s left of the crumbling Ottoman Empire. That’s the gist. Is there anything left to figure out for ourselves? Yes. That’s the surprise. Director-screenwriter James Dearden knows how to pull an audience up short; he wrote Fatal Attraction. Here, adapting Barry Unsworth’s novel, Dearden admittedly wires the plot with a long fuse. But hang on for the detonation. Pascali’s Island builds into an engrossing, superbly acted drama. Ben Kingsley as Basil Pascali gives his most passionate and fiercely moving performance since Gandhi. When he first appears, Pascali appears to be a leech—interpreter, guide or fawning dinner companion to wealthy tourists. Not so. Pascali is a Turkish spy. For the past 20 years he’s been on this island filing reports on suspicious doings to the sultan in Constantinople. For 20 years he’s been receiving regular, modest payments but nary a response. Now something new is afoot. A British archaeologist, played with style and sex appeal by Charles (White Mischief) Dance, shows up looking for a contract from the profiteering pasha (Nadim Sawalha) to explore the island’s ruins, Pascali rightfully smells a con; Dance has planted art objects to swindle the pasha. But Pascali is drawn to Dance’s appetite for beauty. Both are attracted to a woman painter, the luminous Helen (Mosquito Coast) Mirren; Pascali, whose sex life seems to be confined to visits to a boy prostitute, must always remain outside. In one wrenching scene, he watches from a hilltop as Dance and Mirren swim nude in the sea below. While the character’s longing is palpable, Pascali is doomed never to trust or love. When Dance, who has accidentally discovered an ancient bronze statue of a boy, offers Pascali a cut of the take and a chance to begin again, the informer cannot break the patterns of his wasted life. Kingsley invests the role and the movie with a tragic power that lingers in the mind and the heart. (PG-13)

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