Title: The Two Faces of January
Director: Hossein Amini
Major players: Viggo Mortensen, Kirsten Dunst, Oscar Isaac
Out of five? Four
It’s fifteen years since the amoral Tom Ripley found his way onto the big screen, courtesy of Anthony Minghella. Now another Patricia Highsmith creation is in the spotlight, a tour guide called Rydal, who could easily be his first cousin.
We’re in Athens in 1962, where Rydal (Oscar Isaac) is working as a tour guide with a profitable little side line in scamming his clients – especially the ladies. His latest charges are the well-heeled Chester and Colette MacFarland, whose immaculate appearances disguise an equally shady truth. Their lifestyle is funded by Chester’s activities as a conman and it all comes to an abrupt halt when a private detective sent to track him down dies suddenly. With Rydal’s help, the couple go on the run to Crete, but his infatuation with Colette fuels Chester’s jealousy, paranoia and drinking. And things soon get out of hand.
It’s familiar Highsmith territory. There’s no real hero as such: the two men are both morally ambiguous, although there’s none of the homo-eroticism associated with Ripley. But there is an instant connection between them, a recognition of common ground. And the young opportunist also has a strained relationship with his father a la Dickie Greenleaf, although in this instance the father has recently died and Rydal is rebuked in a letter from his mother for not attending the funeral. Even Alberto Iglesias’s soundtrack draws on the music from The Talented Mr Ripley, although there are also distinct echoes from Hitchcock classics.
The film is something of a Greek tragedy – and that’s not meant as a pun. It’s a personal tragedy set in Greece, caused by the flaws in the characters, especially the men. And, while there’s no distinct hero or villain, there is the strong sense of all three members of the triangle being the victims of fate. Yet again, the gods are playing with us mere mortals.
In a sense, first-time director Hossein Amini has played it safe with the film, giving the Ripley fans enough similarities to get them hooked but keeping the film distinct enough to stand on its own. That balancing act works, and is made all the stronger by Amini’s disciplined approach. The historic monuments of Athens bake in the sun, with the glamorous MacFarlands wearing similarly bleached colours. It’s a gift to the cameraman, yet he resists the temptation both here and in Crete to linger too long over the scenery. The characters and the storyline are the focus, and the result is a smidge over 90 minutes of growing tension, taut directing and quality acting.
The only downside on the acting front is Kirsten Dunst, and it’s not really her fault. Colette just isn’t as well drawn as the two men: she does what she can with the role, but there simply isn’t enough there. Mortensen is as consistent as ever, immaculate in his pale suit at the outset but rapidly becoming a drunken, paranoid, sweaty mess. Although a touch too old for the role – which makes the scene where Chester and Rydal pretend to be father and son less than convincing – Oscar Isaac puts in another strong performance as the opportunistic, intelligent tour guide who, by the end of the film, has sufficient decency left to atone for some of his past.
Fans of psychological thrillers/noir should be more than happy with The Two Faces of January. Its traditional, almost classic, style sits comfortably with the 60s setting. It remains to be seen if Hossein Amini has the directorial chops to make something more adventurous.
The Two Faces Of January is released in the UK on Friday, 16 May.