The Two Faces Of January
Patricia Highsmith's novels have been the source of excellent films since Hitchcock's Strangers On A Train, passing through The Talented Mr Ripley, all the way through to this surprisingly enjoyable thriller, which is crisp and well-observed despite its awkward title.
Hossein Amini has been writing scripts for (mostly) interesting films for nearly 20 years, but this is his first gig as director, and he makes the transition a lot better than many others have. It's essentially a three hander, with a married couple, Chester and Colette (Viggo Mortensen and Kirsten Dunst), and a young American called Rydal (Oscar Isaac), who meet in Athens in 1962.
Rydal is working as tour guide, but making his money from skimming his clients, and his pleasure from screwing them. He is attracted to Colette, and the meeting leads to the mutual involvement in each other's lives. Chester is not the smooth urbane operator he appears to be and his dodgy history catches up with him. Someone dies, and the couple have to leave town in a hurry. Rydal is on hand and is the only one willing and able to help.
Crete is their first destination, where the cracks in the marriage and Chester's cool first emerge, as he jealously watches his wife flirting with Rydal, while knocking back large dollops of whisky. The journey becomes increasingly fraught and desperate, with the tension ratcheting up by the minute. The trio are held together by a combination of lust, greed and suspicion, which will of course tear them apart in due course, though if anyone can guess where the axe will fall is cleverer than I was.
It's not the most famous Ripley novel, and not a very skilfully named one (Janus was a two-faced Roman God), but it's rally enjoyable and very well acted. Mortensen is as good as I've seen him with a charming and urbane veneer giving way to al manner of unpleasant lower depths. Dunst has a trickier role, but does an excellent job as a woman who has been playing a role which she has realised is no longer of any use to her. And Isaac builds his reputation as a skilful and versatile leading man who you can believe capable of duplicity while wanting to believe in his integrity.
When I saw the publicity for this film, I didn't think it would amount to much, but I am now convinced by its qualities, and hope that it is a great success.
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