Sunday 21 April 2019

From the archive: "The Two Faces of January"

Unlikely as it may sound, we have the success of 2011’s gaudy vengeance saga Drive to thank for The Two Faces of January, the latest drama to be drawn from the works of author Patricia Highsmith. Scripting Refn’s film reportedly opened the door for writer Hossein Amini to make his directorial debut, yet Two Faces equally harks back to an earlier Amini script, for Iain Softley’s very fine 1997 adaptation of The Wings of the Dove: again, we’re faced with a film that draws not inconsiderable pleasure from the myriad betrayals of increasingly desperate characters.

It opens in the Athens of 1962 – a golden, sunkissed moment – where American tour guide Rydal (Oscar Isaac) takes time off from scamming female tourists to squire a well-heeled couple around the ruins. First impressions suggest Chester and Colette (Viggo Mortensen and Kirsten Dunst) are merely upmarket marks, patsies with a little more green than Rydal’s usual targets; the conman speaks the local tongue, where his new charges don’t. Yet Chester proves to be running his own scam, which has brought them here – and why, when the past catches them up, it does so with deadly consequences.

To reveal more would do scant justice to Amini’s superbly relaxed, assured storytelling, which prefers fostering intimacy to Highsmith’s narrative chicanery. We spend the best part of the first hour, like Rydal, just hanging out with this in-crowd: feeling the sun on our skin and the breeze on our backs, watching this threesome hop from island to island, knocking back the ouzo and eyeing one another up. What could be more seductive?

Already, though, there is an intriguing ambiguity as to which of the couple our guide is more attracted to: all-American cheerleader Dunst, the very picture of a trophy wife? Or is it Mortensen’s upright, generally unruffled Chester, who apparently reminds the recently orphaned Rydal of his stern and unforgiving father?

Engaged performers chart the fluctuations within these relationships: Isaac, as with Llewyn Davis, very much the outsider who wants in, yet keeping Rydal distinct from Highsmith’s triumphant Tom Ripley in his determination to turn even his character’s rare winning hands into busted flushes; Mortensen flexing his knuckles and jaw in ways that insinuate the ruthless steeliness beneath the pressed-suit sophistication; Dunst working hard to make interesting and finally precious a gal mostly here to be steady and true.

Amini realises that with this trio, he doesn’t have to whirl his camera about to get an effect, and so sets about subtly underlining, rather than overwriting, his choices with this text. Practically classical in his editing and shot selection – constructing, for example, a tense passage through Greek customs via a succession of slowburn looks and glances – he’s supremely attentive both to his location, sending his characters out into a parched and rocky landscape just as matters are beginning to hot up, and to how costume might reveal (or conceal) character: hats and sunglasses abound.

Not that it should count for anything much, given the underlying thematic assertion that surfaces can be deceptive, but such considered, detailed handling ensures The Two Faces of January may just hold out as the handsomest film of the year: a deft conversion of a well-thumbed paperback into the kind of intelligent, toney, high-class entertainment you’d almost forgotten the movies were capable of.

(MovieMail, May 2014)

The Two Faces of January screens on Channel 4 tonight at 1.10am.

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