United Kingdom, 1993
R (Sexual Situations, Nudity, Violence)
Colin Firth, Ian Holm, Nicol Williamson, Amina Annabi, Donald Pleasance, Jim Carter, Lysette Anthony
"A few years ago, a friend sent me a book about the prosecution of animals in the Middle Ages... These trials read like modern courtroom dramas. Since the animals were given a full defense counsel and were prosecuted with the whole rigor of the law, it had all the kind of little tricks that lawyers play to get their clients off. What really intrigued me was reading up about [the] people - the renegade priests, the philosophers, the lawyers, people who actually had very modern ideas."
- Leslie Magahey, writer/director of The Advocate
In the Middle Ages in France, the laws of the time applied not only to humans, but to some very unlikely subjects. Since it was the common belief that everything was created by God, all things - including animals, inanimate objects, and natural phenomena - could be held accountable for crimes. It is in this setting that The Advocate spins its web of satire and drama.
Given the advertisements for this film, it would be easy to mistake it for a whodunnit. While the mystery element is a part of The Advocate, it's easily the weakest and least effective one. If this movie had to stand on the basis of its "who killed two boys" story line, it would be in serious trouble. Fortunately, The Advocate's agenda is more ambitious. Writer/director Leslie Magahey, embarking upon his feature debut, attempts a great deal with this movie - and most of his goals are successfully realized. In one-hundred ten minutes, he manages a jab or two at the legal profession, raises serious questions about the nature of justice, and presents a case against bigotry and intolerance.
The main character in this tale is Richard Courtois (Colin Firth), a young advocate who has abandoned Paris for the 1452 French countryside. There, he expects to find relative peace marred by only occasional land disputes and petty quarrels. Instead, he enters a hotbed of murder, rape, beastiality, and sorcery. People - and animals - are being tried and hanged for the most heinous crimes.
Joining Firth - and dwarfing his solid-but-unspectacular performance - is a supporting cast of stellar quality. Donald Pleasance (attempting to shine up an image tarnished by four Halloween films) plays Pincheon, the local prosecutor, who has little difficulty attempting to convict a pig for the murder of two young Jewish boys. Ian Holm is Albertus, a Catholic priest whose personal beliefs fail to match those he publicly espouses. Nicol Williamson is a merchant-come-seigneur who freely and willfully abuses his considerable power.
Magahey has penned an insightful and witty script whose underlying themes and currents are as valid today as they were 500 years ago in another part of the world. Those who don't like lawyers may find it amusing to watch two members of the profession arguing over whether a pig should be found guilty of murder. The deepest indictment in The Advocate, however, is not of the practitioners of law, but of the system itself, and how easy it is to pervert the course of justice. Legal trickery is as old as the courts, and those who make the laws are easily motivated by self-interest. Few have the moral fiber to pass a law that hurts themselves, regardless of how many others it benefits.
Then there's The Advocate's non-sermonizing approach to racial prejudice. Amina Annabi plays a dark-skinned gypsy who fascinates Courtois. Hers is the pig in danger, but the men and women of Abbeville view the woman as little better than the jailed animal. By sleeping with her, the advocate opens himself to a charge of beastiality - engaging in sexual activity with someone viewed as less-than-human.
Despite the rather dreary mystery subplot, the case for The Advocate is a strong one. Leslie Megahey's picture contains enough successful elements that it's possible to push aside those that don't work while concentrating on the ones that do. Taken at face value, this movie presents a view of a Medieval village caught in the grip of fear. Below that surface, however, can be found the themes and convictions which give this film its true victory.