Monday 19 May 2014

The Two Faces of January: Review

The Two Faces of January is an elegant thriller set in Greece in 1962, centred on a trio of American visitors. A rich banker named Chester McFarland (played by Viggo Mortensen) is touring Greece with his much younger wife Colette (Kirsten Dunst). They meet a young man named Rydal (Oscar Isaac) who scrapes a living as a tour guide and petty fraudster. Rydal befriends the couple, and is able to make himself useful to them, but is clearly attracted to Colette.

After a sudden confrontation with his enemies, Chester decides he and his wife must go into hiding, and Rydal agrees to help them. The stage is set for escalating tension and mistrust between the three protagonists, in a film which cheerfully plays with motifs from Greek mythology.

TTFOJ is a homage to the classic thrillers of the 1970s. We could almost be watching a film by Alfred Hitchcock, if it were not for the absence of a cameo by the director. Indeed, TTFOJ is based on a novel by Patricia Highsmith, who also wrote Strangers on a Train, which was adapted for the screen by Hitchcock in 1951. Highsmith also wrote the Ripley novels which were adapted as The Talented Mr Ripley and Ripley's Game. This story has a certain resemblance, as well-dressed Americans play deadly games of cat and mouse, surrounded by the faded grandeur of beautiful European locations.

However, TTFOJ has an enjoyably gritty feeling of its own. The McFarlands are isolated and afraid, running up against the limits of what their money can do. At 96 minutes this is not a long film, but economical direction and writing conveys a lot of information about the characters. In particular, we have seen the relationship between Chester and Rydal develop over time, so that when the final crisis arrives, we can understand the mixture of loathing and respect which motivates them.

TTFOJ benefits from committed performances from its leads. Dunst does the best she can with the slightly underdeveloped part of Colette. Mortensen is very good, as a man who is far more vulnerable than he first appears to be. Oscar Isaac, who recently played the lead in the Coen brothers' Inside Llewyn Davis and will appear in Star Wars Episode VII, also turns in a fine performance which reminded me of a younger Joaquin Phoenix. His character is devious, wrestling with internal conflicts, and rapidly goes a long way out of his depth.

This film is not outstandingly original, but it is a good, well-crafted piece of entertainment.

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