Cinema Review: The Two Faces of January

mortenson-isaac-dunst-january

Dir: Hossein Amini  Wri: Hossein Amini   Pro: Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Robin Slovo, Tom Sternberg  DOP: Marcel Ziskind  Ed. Nicolas Chaudeurge, Jon Harris  Des. Michael Carlin  Mus. Alberto Iglesias  CAST: Kirsten Dunst, Viggo Mortensen, Oscar Isaac, Daisy Bevan
Confession time:  I have no idea why this film is called The Two Faces of January, other than it is based on a book by Patricia Highsmith – like Strangers on a Train and The Talented Mr. Ripley – which is called The Two Faces of January. Perhaps nobody knew what else to call it. Regardless, it is a profoundly awful title which does a disservice to the stylish, engaging tale of intrigue presented by Hossein Amini, who previously wrote the screenplay for the cult favourite mood-piece Drive.

Set in 1962, the film opens with images of bygone glamour, of investment broker Chester Macfarland (Mortensen) and his young wife Colette (Dunst) on a luxurious sight-seeing holiday in Greece. Scoping them out at the Acropolis is runaway misfit Rydal (Isaac), a Greek-speaking American working as a tour guide in Athens, with a sideline in scamming female tourists charmed by his good looks. ‘He reminds me of my father,’ muses Rydal to his latest mark, and whether or not this is true, his gazing leads to a friendly acquaintance with the MacFarlands. Quickly becoming taken with the couple, Rydal is soon taken by the couple to get them out of Athens following Chester’s violent altercation with a man from his past. The remainder of the film follows the ever-deepening power struggle between Chester and Rydal, as much at each other’s mercy as at each other’s throats, as they trek through Greece, Crete and Turkey on the lam with the woman they both love.

The production design and cinematography throughout is superb, and the audience’s introduction to the MacFarlands in Athens is glorious. They glow with affluence: Dunst’s fair golden hair a perfect complement to her yellow hat and dress, Mortensen utterly resplendent in a white suit. (For what it’s worth, Viggo Mortensen spends a great deal of this film in beautiful suits, ties, shades, and fancy hats – think Don Draper on a sun holiday.) It’s to be expected from the initial caveat, ‘based on a novel by Patricia Highsmith’, which also suggests untrustworthy conmen peacocking around Europe until their questionable pasts catch up with them. The Two Faces of January is no exception and this reliably cinematic premise is engrossing, occasionally exciting, if never hugely surprising.

What it lacks in narrative dynamism, however, the film makes up for with its performances.  The film leans heavily on its actors, and for the most part they deliver. Mortensen gives good range, showing the denigration of the initially statesman-like Chester into a panicky, impulsive criminal.  Isaac is similarly good, with echoes of his star-making turn in Inside Llewyn Davis reverberating around here, but Dunst struggles at times, though through no fault of her own. Sadly typical for Highsmith’s neglected female characters, Colette is a bit of a vacant bore, existing mostly as a MacGuffin to drive the plot forward. Her arc is a straight line, compared to that of the two male leads, and while the attraction between Colette and Rydal is key to the film’s narrative, very little is done to develop it. Slight scenes of Rydal cupping Colette’s wrist as she tries on a bracelet, or stolen half-glances over dinner, simply don’t add up to the consuming passion Amini wants to suggest is burgeoning between them, and is one of this film’s greatest weaknesses.

This is just one way in which Amini’s direction is somewhat timid at times. As well as the lack of development of this pivotal plot strand, it’s as if he was almost afraid to tell his actors what to do in the film’s more dramatic moments. Coupled with his adaption of some of Highsmith’s rather old-fashioned dialogue, this gives them a slightly stagey, melodramatic edge. It’s a shame as Mortensen and Isaac turn some of the film’s smaller, throwaway lines into delightfully nuanced characterizations as well as really relishing moments of quiet tension.

For the most part, The Two Faces of January is an absorbing, pleasurable power-play between its two male leads, beautifully shot and styled. As a directorial debut, it’s a mostly successful, if safe and somewhat flawed project for Amini, though a tale of a corrupt investment banker being chased through Europe to answer for his crimes is at least a timely choice of story.

Stacy Grouden

12A (See IFCO for details)
96 mins

The Two Faces of January is released on 16th May 2014

 

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