Film reviews

Closer, Dir; Mike Nichols, Cert; 15

The past twelve months has seen the release of an abundance of sensational films; from the Bush baiting “Fahrenheit 9/11” to the religious blood fest of “The Passion of the Christ” all the way over to the study of sexual identity and morals in “Bad Education”. These films are sensational in their own rights, but nothing has quite shocked me these past several months as much as hearing Julia Roberts shouting about a rather crass sexual encounter in gynaecological detail right before being told to die, all with expletives that I shan’t utter here. It is not only shocking, but is also refreshingly unconventional to see such a loathsome lack of guile (unlike the characters it’s about) in a picture with four Hollywood leading players with a romance plot. “Closer”, a film by Mike Nichols, is a character study that looks at the betrayal, deceit and obsession in relationships.

The plot is simple – through a few weird twists in fate, two young London men and two young American women zig zag through (purely heterosexual) relationships between each other, beginning with their first encounters and then jumping several months ahead to the messy aftermath.

The film stars Jude Law (Dan, a London obituary writer), Natalie Portman (Alice, a New York stripper who has moved to London in a performance that will probably bring a wink and a smile to many a sad “Star Wars” fan), Julia Roberts (Anna, an American photographer) and Clive Owen (Larry, a dermatologist). They encounter each other in a strange chain reaction. Dan locks eyes with Alice while walking down the street before she is knocked down by a vehicle while crossing the road and he takes her to the hospital. A few months pass and Dan has written a book about his relationship with her. The book’s cover photograph is taken by Anna who Dan falls for and begins to see more often. A few more passages of time go by and Dan logs onto the internet and in a chat room he impersonates a girl called Anna in a realistic sequence that’s equally as hilarious as it is bad taste. Here he sets up a blind date for the next day with Larry on the other side, but when Larry turns up and finds the real Anna there, she tells him he has been duped. Ignoring that fact, he immediately desires her and so begins the intense drama between these four people.

Each one of them is fascinated by love, but never completely fall into it. When they just need to take one more step to be in love they strafe to the side with lies, seduction and sadism. They are all eloquent and seemingly sincere, but behind that very convincing mask is a web of deceit. In one scene, one man tells the other to “Try lying for a change - it's the currency of the world.” Theatrical dialogue such as this melded with excellent performances drive the film a lot more than the contrived plot does. The truth to these characters actually causes more problems because they are compelled to be most truthful about the ways in which they have been unfaithful to each other. The scene where Anna explains a sex encounter she had behind her then current boyfriend, Larry is very truthful, but it brings out a violent and repulsive side to both of them. The majority of the time, truth is dishonourable and is used to hurt the other party. Whoever said that beauty is truth will be thoroughly put to shame in this film.

However, as fascinating and frank as this intricate study of interaction is, there are some pitfalls. The screenplay, by Patrick Marber, could very well be a carbon copy of the stage play, also written by Marber, it is based on (Clive Owen played Dan on the stage, trivia fans) and because of that it unravels like a play instead of a film. The theatrical dialogue is used to hammer home the themes and message of the film, relying more on it than the excellent performances. Apart from two very minor characters (a taxi driver and an airport customs officer) the only people who ever speak are the four principle characters. They don't speak in a natural manner, nor do they speak in a way that regular film viewers would feel comfortable with. Instead they talk eloquently all the time. Larry, for example, is a loud mouthed, self-righteous misogynist. It is very obvious purely by watching the character’s actions and Clive Owen’s performance, but when the script calls for him to have an argument, his excuse for sleeping with a prostitute is "I'm a caveman!" On stage this would work well, where the performances and dialogue are heightened to reach out to the audience. On a cinema screen it doesn't quite work. Nichols never takes the camera back to look at the bigger picture. He has made a merely decent and direct film, rather than a brilliant cinematic one as there are no cinematic moments, just affected ones such as the ‘caveman’ scene. On a more peculiar note, I’d like to add that it would also have been remarkably brave and more multifaceted if Marber altered his story a little bit to include slight references to homosexuality because, although it is not hinted at all in the film, the amount of times the characters change their minds about one another it is any wonder that they don’t just turn out to be gay.

Nichols also uses a rather jarring theatrical device in the form of a huge jump in time. We are barely informed about it and when the audience should be unravelling the characters’ minds they are instead left trying to piece together the rough narrative. This is where the faithfulness of the adapted screenplay separates the film from great to good. As per usual, it wraps itself up all too neatly towards the end, relying on standard issue sentiment and tacked on happiness, but that’s to be expected.

All that aside, it’s an interesting and scandalous film that presents some novel ideas. It has superb performances, particularly Portman’s sensitive portrayal of a stripper with feelings. Her role along with Clive Owen’s wonderfully iniquitous one should shoot them both to the top of the next big thing while Nichols, Law and Roberts have yet another substantial piece of work to add to their prolific CVs. 7/10


Robbie Blake


Odeon Online

 

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