I’ve always had something of a fascination for the writing of John Fowles, and that fascination starts with The Magus, a deliberately slippery mystery story that follows many of the expected genre tropes, before exploding them and revealing itself to be…well, it’s anyone’s guess really. Fowles himself revised his original text for a re-mastered edition, so good luck figuring it all out. Director Guy Green makes a bold stab at making a tricky book into a lush film, and Fowles is on aboard for the adaptation, so there’s plenty of room for improvisation.
‘I’ve got everything a poet needs,’ boast Nicholas Urfe (Michael Caine) ‘except poems.’ And what is a poet without poems other than a schoolteacher? That’s the profession that Urfe is following as he arrives on a small Greek island to replace a predecessor who appears to have died unexpectedly. What’s going on? Psychic Grandda Conchis (Anthony Quinn) says he doesn’t know, but he would say that, wouldn’t he? Is he a magus or magician, luring Urfe to his death? Or is he a psychiatrist, or a film-director, or a prankster? Each visit Nicholas makes to Conchis’ villa seeds more doubt, yet the presence of a beautiful girl Lily (Candice Bergen) who may or may not be a captive keeps Urfe coming back for more.
‘Welcome to the meta-theatre!,’ chimes Conchis, whose idea of an evening’s entertainment is to get Nicolas to bet his life on the roll of a dice. Fowles is interested in deconstructing Urfe’s deflating sense of machismo; a ‘child of the century’ who doesn’t accept responsibility for the damage he does to the women he meets, Urfe’s seduction methods fall flat; ‘I can pinch your bottom or kiss you,’ he offers Lily, but each option remains out of reach despite his best efforts.
As with Fowlas’s breakthrough novel The Collector, The Magus is a story about captivity, but while Lily initially appears to be the captive, repeated viewings reveal that it’s Nicolas who is firmly trapped by the logic of Conchis or conscience. A WWII survivor, Conchis’ story is depicted in flashback, and looks back with bitterness at the nature of collaboration. This kind of ambiguity, and the film opens with a copy of Empson’s book Seven Types of Ambiguity in case we’re wondering what kind of film this is, proves engaging to explore, and with a little magic to disguise the gear-shifts, including startling jackal-headed figures in the background, The Magus retains its charms as a set of puzzle-boxes, offering a different outcome every time you watch.
Tanned and well-groomed, Caine was never more stud-ly than he is here, and even if Caine and Fowles reportedly hated the result, they would say that, wouldn’t they? Once you accept that there’s no easy answers, The Magus can be firmly recommended to the literate and to the mystery minded as a mental gymnasium, and one consructed well ahead of the curve. Just don’t ask exactly what it all means…