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.

Ripley’s Game (2002)

2009 #67
Liliana Cavani | 106 mins | TV | 15 / R

Ripley's GameMatt Damon is back as… Oh, wait, no he isn’t — he’s turned into John Malkovich.

Not quite — there’s no reasonable way Ripley’s Game can be considered a sequel to Anthony Minghella’s The Talented Mr Ripley. Though it’s adapted from a later novel in Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley series (previously filmed as the Dennis Hopper-starring The American Friend, incidentally), the action is relocated to the present day, and it’d be a pretty hard sell to believe Matt Damon would grow up to be John Malkovich.

Despite the acclaim of Minghella’s effort just three years earlier, and a cast that includes recognisable faces such as a Ray Winstone, Dougray Scott and Lena Headey alongside Malkovich, Ripley’s Game snuck out with barely anyone noticing, including going straight to TV in the US. There are surely reasons for this, reports of a problematic shoot probably among them, but the neglect is undeserved. In 2006, Roger Ebert saw fit to include it in his Great Movies list, though other critics are less favourable (the Radio Times, for one handy example, rate it just three out of five). While Ebert is in my opinion overselling the film by including it in a list of the best films ever made ever, it’s certainly an above average, consummately made, and constantly entertaining Euro-thriller.

Perhaps the difference in opinion about the film stems from one, arguably crucial, sticking point: the Radio Times criticises the humour included in the murders and thriller sections, viewing it as a failure of director Liliana Cavani; conversely, Ebert approves of it, praising them as appearing somewhere “between a massacre and the Marx Brothers”. There’s undoubtedly more to the diverging opinions than this, but it’s at least emblematic. I’m inclined to agree with Ebert: these sequences do have tension — not the most one’s ever experienced in a thriller, but enough — but they marry the humour to it, leaving you chuckling on the edge of your seat.

For the most part the story keeps moving, twisting and turning in sometimes unexpected directions. Other films would happily take the first half-hour or so of this and stretch it to a whole feature, but screenwriters Charles McKeown and Cavani — adapting from Highsmith’s novel, of course, so the credit lies with her — take the premise further and in new directions. It’s not flawless, with the climax by far the biggest let down: Ripley and Trevanny hole up in the former’s villa, preparing for a veritable war as Ripley anticipates goodness-knows how many men to turn up. When it’s only two, it seems more believable than a whole army of mafia goons descending on the relatively insignificant pair, but it’s also distinctly anticlimactic after the hype. Still, at least the story has a final twist up its sleeve.

Malkovich may be a fairly respected actor, but to me he’s always seemed detached, flat, or mannered — often all three. Here, he’s still all three, but it suits Ripley’s unusual character down to the ground. His dry wit and incessant matter-of-fact delivery craft a quietly sinister, stalking nature, aiding the character’s believable unpredictability — that is to say, you’re never certain what he’s going to do next, but when he does it’s not surprising. I’ve never read a Ripley novel (there are five) nor seen another Ripley film (there are four), but Malkovich’s performance fits so perfectly I have little doubt this is precisely how Ripley should be played.

Among the rest of the cast, Ray Winstone is landed with a role he could play in his sleep, Lena Headey is perfectly fine as an unremarkable wife, and Scot Dougray Scott plays a none-more-plummy Brit. Unfortunately this accent sometimes seems to be the main focus of his performance, and it occasionally falters when he gets highly emotional, but it’s not really a problem… though it is rather odd to hear if you’re familiar with how he normally sounds. His character, Trevanny, is primarily a pawn in Ripley’s titular amusement, leaving Scott with only a passing hint of the character arc with which the role could have been gifted.

As noted earlier, there are numerous tales of problems on set, not least the multinational cast coping with a multinational crew in multiple nations, culminating in Cavani leaving towards the end of shooting and directorial duties being fulfilled by Malkovich. But as many have noted before, happy sets can produce dreadful movies and unhappy sets masterpieces, and while I don’t quite share the view that Ripley’s Game is entirely the latter, it certainly errs more in that direction than the other.

4 out of 5