The latest film adaptation of a novel from lesbian author, Patricia Highsmith, ‘The Two Faces of January’ rachets up the tension before going off the rails altogether, according to Peter Roche.
The directorial debut of Hossein Amini, writer of the cult Ryan Gosling cool-fest, Drive (and since then, Snow White and the Huntsman and 47 Ronin, but let’s not talk about that, okay?) takes us on holiday with an alluring American couple in 1960’s Athens. The screenplay, also by Amini, is based on the 1964 novel of the same name by Patricia Highsmith, best known as the writer of Strangers on a Train and The Talented Mr. Ripley, both of which have also been adapted for the screen with classic results.
At the Acropolis the charming and wealthy Chester MacFarland (portrayed by a well-aged Viggo Mortensen) along with his beautiful and much younger wife Colette (Kirsten Dunst) cross paths with a fast-talking tour guide and petty con man Rydal (portrayed by Oscar Isacc still flavour of the month, after Llewellyn Davis). The couple invite Rydal out to dinner and after a great many whiskeys and even more cigarettes, the past catches up on Chester. In the ensuing chaos a man dies.
Rydal offers to help the ever more mysterious couple, but he too has more faces than Janus himself. Is he after a father figure in Chester, the couple’s money, or the beautiful Colette? Freud would have a field day with the Oedipal undertones at play here, and as the tension mounts and the authorities close in, the real drama comes from the frictions between our three protagonists.
This film has many strong points. It is beautifully shot and scored, and made this viewer yearn to wear a linen suit while drinking copious amounts of whiskey by the Mediterranean. The acting is naturalistic, thanks to a sparse script – teeming wants and longings beneath the surface are suggested with lingering glances or a slight anglings of the body while sharing cigarettes. Amini builds a convincing sense of claustrophobia and as the masks crack and our protagonists show their true selves, the thrills are definitely there. But then all the naturalism goes out the window, and the film suddenly turns into a cat-and-mouse thriller. Bizarrely, in the closing scenes, it verges on high melodrama, which breaks the spell entirely, and suspension of disbelief becomes impossible.
At times the film feels tired, it owes its legacy to both Hitchcock’s tense version of Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train, and the psychological melodrama of Anthony Mingella’s version of The Talented Mr Ripley, and and while it shows a deep love for both, it brings little that’s new to the table. In some ways it’s a shame the story wasn’t modernised. The late 50’s and early 60’s are rife with genre-defining, stylish psychological thrillers, and this film feels like it belongs back then with them. It’s a tad too late for its time.
The Two Faces of January opens in selected cinemas on May 16
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