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MOVIE REVIEW : 'Dr. Bethune' Too Conventional for Its Subject

March 09, 1994|KEVIN THOMAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"Dr. Bethune", an often absorbing and intelligent film biography, boasts one of Donald Sutherland's best portrayals, as the Canadian legend Dr. Norman Bethune. Bethune, born in 1890, was a brilliant, tempestuous physician who pioneered socialized medicine and introduced blood transfusions on the battlefields of the Spanish Civil War, though he was ultimately driven away by the Republicans for his hard drinking and incessant womanizing. He ended up finding contentment and respect at last as chief medical officer to Mao Tse-Tung and his 8th Route Army, dying in China in 1939.

There are the makings of a distinctive, "Schindler's List"-scale saga here, but instead we get a genteel treatment typical of the English-speaking Canadian cinema. It has been directed briskly by "The Grey Fox's" Phillip Borsos, but with not nearly as much panache as a headstrong genius rake like Bethune deserves. "Dr. Bethune" is far too conventional a film for so unconventional a hero.

Ted Allan, Canada's most honored screenwriter, a man who actually knew Bethune, wrote his script in 1942, which Darryl Zanuck was to produce. Best known for the autobiographical 1975 Canadian production "Lies My Father Never Told Me" and for John Cassavetes' last film, "Love Streams," Allan has come up with pithy dialogue, some sharp characterizations and a classic "Citizen Kane"-like structure, an intricate interweaving of flashbacks triggered by a reporter's interviews with people who had been important in Bethune's life.

To pull this off with maximum clarity and impact, you need a stronger, more dynamic personality than Borsos possesses; you need a director who could have given the film more shape and distinction. The result is a movie that is good when it needs to be great. You come away sorry that Norman Jewison, who tried, didn't get his "Dr. Bethune" off the ground.

Yet "Dr. Bethune" is well worth seeing as a refreshingly adult, socially conscious drama, especially for Sutherland's persuasive, charismatic portrayal, which is well-matched by Helen Mirren's Frances Bethune. The physical attraction between the Bethunes is tangible, their love intense and enduring, but they were spectacularly ill-matched in temperament. Frances is far too prudish and traditional for Norman, who probably would have been bad husband material for practically any woman. Even so, Frances is no fool, and she is probably right to regard her husband as "politically naive."

Sutherland and Mirren work up plenty of fire, but they're the film's only truly vivid presences; all Anouk Aimee, as a beautiful French-Canadian who deals with Norman with far more sophistication and calm than his wife, gets to do is look soulful and sympathetic. As a writer, Allan laid a solid foundation, but needed to have been inspired--or given the chance--to flesh out the subsidiary characters more fully.

"Dr. Bethune" has been on the shelf undeservedly for several years, but that's understandable to a certain extent, given its subject's lack of familiarity in the U.S. and the film's serviceable, yet overly prosaic style. It certainly possesses scope, spanning the last decade or so of the doctor's life and stretching from Montreal to Madrid to actual remote Chinese locales. What Norman Bethune did and had to say is of enduring importance, and it may well be that his message will come across more effectively if the film eventually winds up on television.

*

'Dr. Bethune'

Donald Sutherland: Dr. Norman Bethune

Helen Mirren: Frances Penny Bethune

Helen Shaver: Mrs. Dowd

Colm Feore: Chester Rice

Ronald Pickup: Alan Coleman

Anouk Aimee: Marie-France Coudaire

Guo Da: Dr. Chian

A Tara Releasing and Filmline International presentation with the participation of Telefilm Canada in association with China Film Co-Production Corp. Director Phillip Borsos. Producers Nicolas Clermont, Pieter Kroonenberg. Co-producers Wang Xingang, Jacques Dorfmann. Screenplay by Ted Allan. Cinematographers Raoul Coutard, Mike Molloy. Editors Yves Langlois, Angelo Corrao. Music Alan Reeves. Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes.

MPAA rating: unrated. Times guidelines: It includes scenes of strong sensuality, coarse language and complex adult themes. * In limited release at the Monica 4-Plex, 1332 2nd St., Santa Monica. (310) 394-9741.

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