Director: Roman Polanski
Major players: Jodie Foster, John C Reilly, Christoph Waltz, Kate Winslet
Out of five? 3
Some phrases stay with you for life. Back in my student days, I was a huge fan of Peanuts, and one of its best lines was Linus’ cry of despair on the football field, “I love mankind. It’s people I can’t stand!” Which rather sums up Roman Polanski’s latest offering, Carnage, a four-handed satirical comedy.
Based on The God of Carnage, Yazmina Reza’s stage play from 2006, the film focuses on two sets of parents who are thrown together as a result of an argument between their two 11 year old sons. One of the boys has been injured and the intention is to reach an agreement on how to resolve the situation. But an initial veneer of courtesy and formality is soon stripped away to reveal the people underneath, complete with all their failings, prejudices and frustrations.
Seconds in to the film, you just know that the couples are on a collision course: all it takes is for Alan (Christoph Waltz), whose son struck the other boy with a stick, to quibble over one word in a joint statement and prickly Jodie Foster’s hackles start to rise – and they don’t drop for the duration of the film.
After that, it’s downhill all the way, made worse by a combination of Kate Winslet’s very physical reaction to Foster’s cooking, single malt and Waltz’s addiction to his mobile phone. Cracks that were already evident in both relationships become chasms and, as the situation escalates, the four characters constantly change alliegances.
Set in the apartment of the parents of the injured boy (Jodie Foster and John C Reilly), with occasional forays into the hallway outside, the restricted setting accentuates the intensity of the emotions on show. It’s a film that benefits from being watched in a small screening room and would probably work well on the small screen. The downside, however, is that it betrays the film’s origins by giving it a stage bound feel.
As the argument intensified, I began to feel I was watching an articulate, middle class version of The Jeremy Kyle Show, but without the man himself to fuel the fire. The laughs – and there are plenty of them – are in a similar vein too: ones of disbelief, complete with a shake of the head, interspersed with chuckles of familiarity.
The film’s biggest weakness is its end. I won’t give it away totally in case you go to see it, but it’s a real anti-climax, creating the impression that co-writers Reza and Polanski simply ran out of ideas.
Its strength, however, is the stellar cast, who all give strong performances, both individually and as an ensemble. The mis-match that is Penelope and Michael’s marriage is exemplified by their contrasting appearances: Penelope is precise, obsessively tidy, and simmering below the surface, while Michael is big, bluff and her political and cultural opposite. Both high powered professionals, Nancy and Alan (Winslet and Waltz) initially appear more in tune with each other but Alan’s legal career takes priority over everything, including his wife, which makes for inevitable resentment.
Would the two boys have made a better job of sorting things out? Watching their parents’ efforts, it wouldn’t be hard. And which of them are behaving like children and which like adults is an even bigger question – which has, it must be said, an obvious answer.