The Two Faces of January (2014)

2016 #15
Hossein Amini | 97 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK, France & USA / English, Greek & Turkish | 12 / PG-13

The writer of Drive (and co-writer of Snow White and the Huntsman and 47 Ronin, but maybe he’d prefer we didn’t mention those) moves into the director’s chair with this Patricia Highsmith adaptation. Best know for her Ripley (as in Talented Mr.) tales, this is instead the story of a young American man, Rydal (Oscar Isaac), who, while working as a tour guide in Greece, falls in with middle-aged American couple Chester (Viggo Mortensen) and Colette (Kirsten Dunst). Apparently on holiday, they look like an easy mark for Rydal’s somewhat-con-ish moneymaking practices, but events soon transpire to reveal the pair’s secrets, and Rydal’s greed draws him deeper into their affairs.

Amini has picked some quality material for his directorial debut. The storyline is pretty straightforward, but it’s driven by some interesting characters with complex motivations. You’re never entirely sure what’s driving Rydal and Chester, even if it may appear obvious; and sometimes it can be as much of a twist that a character didn’t have a better plan as it is when their implausibly-intricate machinations are unveiled. It helps that the film has a pair of quality actors in these roles, who effortlessly bring believability to even the slightly-far-fetched elements of the narrative. This is only the second thing I’ve seen where Isaac has made an impression (the other being The Force Awakens; I’d forgotten he was in Robin Hood and Sucker Punch), but I can see why everyone’s calling him one to watch.

If Dunst doesn’t leave as much of a mark as the two chaps, it’s only because Colette is a subtler-still character. Some people reckon The Two Faces of January has a thin story and no development of its characters, but I can’t help but feel it was too subtle for such critics. On the surface it might just seem like Colette is the dim-blonde wife, going along with her husband whatever happens and flirting with their sexy tour guide, but there’s clearly more going on under the surface. How much does she really know about Chester’s actions? Is she an innocent bystander, or is she involved? Is it harmless flirting with Rydal, or are Chester’s drunken suspicions on the money?

By choosing to set the film in the novel’s original 1960s timeframe, Amini adds instant style and class to the whole picture. Didn’t everything look classier back then? I mean, Chester wears linen suits and Panama hats, not T-shirts, shorts, and a baseball cap. It just wouldn’t be the same set today. Even the locations look straight out of the ’60s, even though they’re hundreds or thousands of years old and the film was shot this decade. Marcel Zyskind’s attractive cinematography is surely to thank for that. Again, it’s an element I’ve heard some criticise as boring or plain, which (much like the above views on plot and character) I just don’t understand. It’s not showy or show-off-y, but that’s part of what works. It lets the natural beauty of the locations speak for themselves, with classical compositions and rich lighting.

The era of the setting also helps emphasise the film’s Hitchcockian overtones, which given Highsmith’s other most-famous work is Strangers on a Train (filmed by Hitch, of course) is perhaps an obvious point of comparison, but by no means an inappropriate or negative one. As the narrative twists and turns, tightening the tension ever more, you think the Master of Suspense would’ve been quite pleased if this had been one of his pictures.

Filming this particular Highsmith novel was a long-held ambition for Amini (he first tried to acquire the rights after his big-screen writing debut, Jude, back in 1996). Such much-awaited dreams can sometimes lead to poor results, thanks to a rose-tinted perspective or close-minded obsession, but on other occasions the lengthy preparation pays off. The Two Faces of January is most certainly a case of the latter, a ceaselessly classy, subtly complex thriller that’s very rewarding for those open to its numerous charms.

4 out of 5

The UK TV premiere of The Two Faces of January is on Film4 tomorrow, Sunday 31st, at 9pm.

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6 thoughts on “The Two Faces of January (2014)

  1. Nice one – my words on it are ready to be published at midnight and I wondered if you’d get there before me! To be honest I think we had pretty much the same response – it’s a very fine and densely plotted thriller that’s wise/lucky enough to have three great actors who are equal to their roles. I also agree about the Hitchcock overtones (even the score is Herrmann-esque), and I got the impression that Mortensen was channelling Joseph Cotten throughout. I hope between us that we can persuade one or two people to give it a look – it deserves better!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ah, I look forward to seeing what you have to say!

      Film4 seem to have been pushing it quite a lot (though I’ve been watching more than usual, so it may just seem that way to me), so hopefully that’ll help it find an audience now, because I agree it deserves more. From a “gaining viewers” perspective, it’s almost a shame ITV don’t have the rights (I mean, it’s a Film4 production, but still), because its style might slip nicely into that Poirot/etc slot that they can do so well.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yes, difficult to see what’s not to like – murder, intrigue, tension, beautiful actors and locations… It’s got everything. Agreed though, good to see Film4 pushing some of these films out and trying to promote itself – it’s always been the go-to channel for a blog devoted to films being screened on television and I’m so relieved it’s there, but it’s also been partly responsible for some great and original work and it should celebrate this more, as far as I’m concerned.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Every once in a while they seem to do a “we make films as well, you know” kind of season, but I don’t think many would object if they made that point more consistently. Considering some of the blockbuster stuff they seem to screen all the time, maybe they could show some of their own movies with increased regularity.

          Liked by 1 person

      • True, and I didn’t realise either, but it is Working Title and I’m sure they have some sort of arrangement with Film4 because so many of their films end up being shown there. Their list of productions, those they’ve had a hand in, is really incredible – so many great titles from recent years… It makes those rumours about Channel 4 being sold all the more worrying.

        Liked by 1 person

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