It kind of sucks how weak of a market we have for foreign films, but after learning the behind-the-scenes details in of this film, it’s a wonder we’re allowed to get any at all. Originally produced by the BBC, The Hour of the Pig (1993) told the story of Richard Courtois (Colin Firth), a big city lawyer in the 15th-century who migrates to a rural village to act as advocate. Back then, animals were considered just as culpable as people for crimes, and soon Courtois finds himself defending a pig for the murder of a child. He’s reluctant, but after digging around a bit, he discovers that the framing of this farm animal is just a small part of a larger conspiracy that has consumed the entire town. Clearly, this is what Twin Peaks should have been about.
However, when it came to distribution in the United States, the film was given to Miramax, under the guiding hand of Harvey Weinstein, a man so well known for editing down foreign films that he had to be threatened with a samurai sword to not cut anything out of Princess Mononoke. First, they cut down the sex scenes to avoid an NC-17, which, OK, that’s fair. Even the sex they ended up leaving in there is pretty gratuitous. However, it did not end there, and up to ten minutes of the film was cut out for “pacing and runtime.” I honestly don’t know what was cut, I couldn’t find the BBC version to compare, but many of have say that the cuts removed some of the film’s clarity.
And then they changed the title to The Advocate. Why? Well, you see, a year prior to this, Miramax found huge success with The Crying Game (1992), a film well known for it’s twist part way through. This began what might be considered the First Twist Era, a time when studios began to see the marketability of plot twists in films. This is a marketing ploy that seems to come and go like the tides, with the Second Twist Era brought about by The Sixth Sense (1999) and the M. Night Shyamalan Industrial Complex and the Third Twist Era currently being helmed by J.J. Abrams and his “Mystery Box.” Each time this has happened, studios seem to miss the point entirely and films get pretty sucky for a short time.
Miramax decided they wanted to turn The Hour of the Pig into a “twist film” by leaving the “lawyer defends a farm animal” plot a surprise. To do so, they changed the title, never hinted at it in the marketing, and even inserted a little message at the beginning of the film begging critics to not spoil it in their reviews. As you can imagine, this backfired considerably, the film did abysmally in the U.S. box office. The problem was, unlike the twist in The Crying Game, the film was never designed to have the court-drama-with-a-pig plot be a surprise. If anything, it’s a gimmick to get people into seats. Without it, all people are going to think is that the film is just another stuffy, by-the-book historical drama that the U.K. is well known for. Those kind of films play all the time on PBS, why bother paying to see it?
Of course, all this might lead you to believe that this film is a hidden gem that Miramax did a disservice to. Truth be told, The Advocate isn’t all that compelling, and I doubt adding the missing ten minutes would have made it any more so. I said the court stuff with the pig was a gimmick, and I meant just that. It takes so little screentime and the actual stakes of it seem so low that it’s easy to forget it’s even happening. The pig belongs to a band of traveling gypsies who hire Courtois to save it as it’ll be their source of food in the winter. There is no actual emotional connection to the pig, it’s not a pet and we’re under no pretence that it means anything to the gypsies outside of a food source. Win or loss, the pig will die by the end of the film. But when Courtois offers one the gypsy women, Samira (Armina Annabi), two pigs as replacement, she refuses. I guess it’s a matter of pride or whatever.
So with no real stakes within the film’s get-butts-in-seats gimmick, the rest of the film is just left to flounder and come up with it’s own story. There is a conspiracy behind the child’s death, and there are some interesting and colorful characters, such as a promiscuous priest (Ian Holm), a soft-spoken prosecutor (Donald Pleasance) and a powerful landowner (Nicol Williamson) and his off-beat royal children (him and his whole family feel like prototype Game of Thrones characters). However (and in fairness, this might be the fault of the cut ten minutes), none of the plots and subplots seem to reach any conclusion, and it’s hard to find the relevant connections between some of them.
And the reason for all of this is that Richard Courtois is a pretty shitty protagonist. I’m not such an optimist to think that every story’s hero needs to win, but it would be nice if the hero showed the least bit of competence or high moral standing or, hell, interest in the things that are going on around him. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film where the protagonist was so impotent, so helpless to the things going on around him. You want to know how out of depth this guy is? When he first moves to the village, he stays in what he thinks is an inn while a house is being built for him. And in this inn, women just randomly show up in his room and have sex with him for no reason. He has to be TOLD, at the end of the film, that he’s been staying at a brothel this entire time. Our hero, everyone. Too stupid to realize he’s having sex with a prostitute.
He’s not even good at his trade craft. We see him defend three cases. The first he wins only on the virtue that everyone in town hated the murder victim. The second he loses because he’s not read up enough on local law (reading up on law IS HIS JOB). The third, the one involving the pig, the supposed centerpiece of the entire film, he only wins through outright lying and giving the antagonists what they want. There’s no Big Defense that you see in most courtroom dramas, never clever manipulation of legal lingo, no damning evidence at the last minute. He blames the murder on another just-as-innocent pig, and it’s that pig that ends up getting the death penalty.
He’s always the only one in the room that has no idea what’s going on. While a lot of this falls on the script, a lot of the blame could probably fall on Colin Firth, who decides to play the role with wide-eyed puzzlement and discomfort. You never get a sense that he’s actually thinking about his problems, actually trying to put two and two together, only that he’s a lost stupid little boy who snuck into his parents room as they watched porn. He never discovers anything, he either stumbles onto it by accident or has it told to him by another character.
And in the end, the bad guys win in every possible way. Well, there is this brief coda of sorts that suggests everyone gets their just deserts, but again, it’s not from something brought on by the protagonist of the film. It’s weird in how the film seems to be fighting it’s audience, refusing to be engaging. “You wanted to see a pig trial, we’ve already got you’re money, isn’t that enough?”
The Advocate version of the film is available on DVD and Netflix Instant.