David Bowie did not receive an Oscar nomination for portraying Maj. Jack "Strafer" Celliers nor did Tom Conti for portraying the titular Lt. Col. John Lawrence in Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence.
The film is particularly off-beat in its approach to the POW story-line, as even the central character is shattered. The man you'd assume is the central character is Tom Conti's Lawrence, after-all he is in the title. His role though isn't that of personal discovery but rather personal examination. We have him rather in this way as the facilitator for the camp, due to his speaking Japanese. This largely seen through his interactions with Japanese Sgt. Gengo Hara (Takeshi Kitano). Conti's performance though is striking in portraying basically the part with an earthly understanding of the situation. This as Conti's work exudes the wear of the situation to be sure. This in his whole face just is that of a man who has been in this camp for a lengthy time and more importantly dealing with the sheer insanity of trying to maintain some sort of peace and safety for the British. Conti's work is interesting in the way he is this reactionary lead in a certain sense. Although he takes action, it is deferred based on trying to stay pace within the insanity of his captors. Conti wearing particularly well this careful face of the man, this as his eyes say so much in the man attempting to analyze a given situation careful and gauge each man to attempt to interfere best he can. The opening scene we see this as he tries to negotiate for even the life of a Japanese, who sodomized a prisoner. Conti's expression so well grating the humanity of the concern, but also the wagering of the man in deciphering the violence that may take place from the situation.
David Bowie manages to find a careful ground within his performance that is rather notable. In that he's not quite ethereal however he is close. This as we take a moment where Celliers fake smokes waiting for his judgment, and Bowie does portray it as just a moment of sort self-joy eccentricity in the man, though such a gesture is all the more fascinating because of that Bowie presence. He however does not portray Celliers as whole detached. When the trial decide to do a fake firing squad as a bit of torture for Celliers, Bowie portrays effectively both the sense of determination not to show fear, while also conveying the sense of fear within the man still as a bit of internalization. He skillfully reveals both and in turn shows Celliers as a man very much of the moment, but there is something about him that makes him seem as though he isn't quite as tangible as the rest of the men. This continues as he is brought within the camp, even though he is responsive to the rest of the men including Conti's Lawrence. Lawrence of course though remains this peculiar figure of negotiator even in this regard. Conti is interesting in the way he plays his own sort of resilience oddly enough even in his haggard expression and exhausted manner. This even when he himself is frequently hit, this as the consistency in Conti's performance, effectively so, is the sense of calm of the man trying to keep the Japanese from killing anyone, but also keeping his own men, particularly the CO Hicksley (Jack Thompson), from spurring more wrath from their captors.
The two men do find some common bond then in their mutual endeavor of a kind of survival. There is a particularly terrific moment where Sgt. Hara comes to visit in the middle of the night to chat with Lawrence and to look upon Celliers. Conti is first wonderful in his scene with Kitano as they strike up an engaging chemistry. This in that Conti plays a certain bemusement at the soldier's belittling of the British army, even as he calmly states the reasons for surrender, but in this state Conti reflects in his eyes just a certain sense of genuine camaraderie. This just as he portrays an earnest sense of humanity in the conversation even if within the conversation they are still at odds. This is a bit different to when Sgt. Hara takes a look at Celliers, to which Celliers comments on Hara's face. Bowie again striking this unique balance in this certain near otherworldly quality of an idiosyncratic appreciation, however speaks the words with this convincing grace. A grace that again I'm not sure many actors could've mustered the way Bowie is able to do through his own idiosyncrasies. We see this interesting dynamic continue between these two men who becomes de-facto leaders of dealing with the Japanese. This includes Celliers having a funeral for a dead soldier, however defiantly saying the flowers for that were in fact for the sake of food. The moment of Bowie eating the food is something special in itself, as he carries again this particularly fascinating sense of defiance, where again we see in his eyes the sense of being above the man he's staring down, but again with that certain intangible quality that makes all the greater impact.
When we see the first confrontation between Celliers and Yonoi, Bowie is terrific in the way we see him brandish his charisma in a way. His eye darting that both creating the sense of reflection that Celliers is aware of the certain hold he has on the captain, but also portray his purposeful brandishing of that sense in an attempt to help the men. These actions though leave both Lawrence and Celliers in prison, in which both actors are excellent in portraying the differing natures of the men even as they reflect on similar thoughts. Conti being wonderful as he grants that sense of regret of what was not taken by him which fits right along within the man defined by basically a dogged exhaustion. This is again Bowie's portrayal of also a regret, however his performance is more internalized in this regard, his eye instead evoking a sense of the man piecing together his own regret. This regret being his betrayal of his hunchbacked brother in primary school where he did nothing to protect him from a mob a ridicule. Bowie's performance wears within that sense of basically a betrayal of duty, as he speaks with what is more refined regret, that positions as almost something that fuels Celliers's determination now. Although both men seem to have created a respite for a moment through their combined actions of negotiation and defiance, it is immediately shattered Hicksley forces Yonoi's hand by questioning the captain decision to make Celliers the CO of the POWs. I love the brief moment of Conti's delivery of disdain and terror as he berates Hicksley, showing the man who sees all his efforts lost in a second notice. This leading the climactic moment of the film, where Yonoi is about to execute Hicksley and Celliers takes action. Bowie is amazing in this scene, as even the way he moves across the field has this power to it, as we again see the man field a force of himself, as he saves the CO, by directly kissing Yonoi, essentially sacrificing himself and destroying the captain in the same act. In this moment we get Bowie again using that presence of his honestly as a weapon, that makes this such a powerful moment, but he also grants the needed sense of the man acting with that conviction to attempt to deal with his former failure. The film then quickly wraps up, however we are left with a final epilogue where Lawrence visits an about to be executed Hara after the war is over. Although I think the scene itself in its thematic message isn't quite earned, the sentiment of it is all well created by the actors. Conti delivers on the sense of that former camaraderie to the man, now more openly shown, and so powerfully grants the sense of sympathy in Lawrence for his former captor. It is a poignant moment, as the performances create such a beautiful sense of the human connection between the two men formerly at war with one another. Although I again have reservations within the film, these two performances exemplify the best qualities of the film. Conti in his honest depiction of a man just trying to help everyone survive, and Bowie making the most of his onscreen abilities, to craft a wholly unique presence essential for the idiosyncratic dynamic at the center of the film.