DIR:  Roman Polanski • WRI: Yasmina Reza • PRO: Saïd Ben Saïd • DOP: Pawel Edelman • ED: Hervé de Luze • DES: Dean Tavoularis • Cast: Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz

Roman Polanski’s first feature film Knife in the Water, which is 50 years old this year, is a masterpiece of power plays and claustrophobia. Carnage is not that, but it does play on the same ideas as Polanski’s debut, and succeeds to a large degree.

The film begins with a scuffle between children in a Brooklyn park that results in one child swiping at the other with a large stick. As the film’s drama opens we are in the apartment home of the victim, and the parents of both parties are hashing out an agreement about responsibility for the incident. The victim’s parents, nouveau riche and secretly uncultured Michael (John C. Reilly) and his pretentious, politically correct wife, Penelope, scuttle the amicable proceedings when they passive-aggressively imply that the parents of the young aggressor, stressed pacifist Nancy (Kate Winslet) and disinterested corporate lawyer Alan (Christoph Waltz), should pay to repair the damage done to their son’s teeth. Arguments ensue.

What should have been a simple meet-and-greet turns into a day of drunkenness and verbal violence as hosts turn on guests, husbands turn on wives and men and women turn on one another.

Based on Yasmina Reza’s play God of Carnage – a winner of both the Olivier and Tony awards for best play, perhaps the highest honours any theatre piece can achieve – Carnage suffers from its one location structure. While the play can hold the four characters in the apartment for the story’s duration, using that subconscious theatrical device that implies if a character leaves the stage they will somehow cease to exist, the film forces all four to remain in the apartment unnaturally. This is not 12 Angry Men! At one stage Alan refuses to get into the elevator to leave in case he loses phone reception for an important call, and subsequently they stay another hour. There’s only so much disbelief a film audience can be expected to suspend.

What Polanski and Reza, in their adaptation, lose in believability they win back in the performances. Reilly is a keg full of rage just waiting to crack open. Waltz is the manipulative snake we haven’t seen since Inglourious Basterds. The ever-reliable Winslet goes fluidly from repressed to outright hostile as the drinks flow, while Foster gives her best performance since Silence of the Lambs in a role seething with bitterness and resentment.
The film uses its top-notch performers well to bring out the dark comedy and carry the film’s satirical content; the moral here is man is, at heart, a selfish, amoral beast. The savagery of the personal attacks mirrors the childish scuffle they have condemned. Characters seem to care more for their personal belongings than the wellbeing of those around them. Alan is more concerned that a pharmaceutical company he represents may have its reputation damaged than the fact its faulty medicine is killing people.

Unfortunately, all the strengths of this film are largely undermined by the sudden and pointless ending. What possessed Polanski to end the film with an infantile punchline instead of the source material’s acceptance of mankind’s universal failings is beyond comprehension. The ultra-PC conclusion is totally out of keeping with the core of the film, and leaves a bitter aftertaste from what was an otherwise enjoyable adaptation.

Carnage, for all its successes, is a hard film to recommend due to its ending, but it should still be lauded as an entertainment and for its fine performances.

David Neary

Rated 15A (see IFCO website for details)

Carnage is released on 3rd February 2012



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