The Two Faces of January (2014)

When it’s on: Sunday, 31 January (9.00 pm)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

Several years ago I tried following a published list of great novels, the aim being to read and then blog about my own findings. The project didn’t last, but before giving up I managed to take in Strangers on a Train and that led to a bit of a love affair with the work of Patricia Highsmith. The piece is here, by the way – it’s a bit of a rambler, but that’s nothing new from me. Getting through the book was easy enough; after all, I love the film adaptation by Alfred Hitchcock and it turned out that he’d cherry picked from the text. In the novel, both ‘strangers’ become mired in guilty acts whereas the film diverts from this path, making Guy into a fairly straightforward hero who never quite falls into Bruno’s trap. The book, told largely from Guy’s perspective, gets into its villains’ heads and actually generates some sympathy for these people who have committed evil acts and the guilt that completely ensnares them by the close. It’s definitely worth a read, if for no other reason than for the appearance of a hangdog detective who surely helped to create the template for the long-running Columbo.

The Two Faces of January is a less celebrated Highsmith, but it explores many of the same themes as covered in Strangers on a Train and is no less fascinating. That it took fifty years for the 1964 novel to be adapted for the screen is a little curious considering it won awards at the time, but script writer Hossein Amini had always wanted the job and got to do it for his 2014 directorial debut. The story is classic Highsmith. Set in Greece, the narrative follows three characters, none of whom are especially nice, on a doom-laden descent. Rydal (played in the film by Oscar Isaac) is a petty young grifter, based in Athens and hiring himself out as a tour guide, seducing young women and using his Greek language skills to weasel shoppers who don’t understand the currency exchange rate out of their money. He comes across Chester and Colette MacFarland (Viggo Mortensen and Kirsten Dunst), on the surface a pair of easy marks, wandering the Acropolis, well dressed, affluent and floating through their holiday. Rydal makes their acquaintance and finds them to be pleasant company, particularly the lovely and apparently guileless Colette. But then the action starts following the couple, back to their hotel room where Chester is disturbed by a private investigator. Money is demanded from him on behalf of some swindled investors. We learn that Chester has gone under different aliases, that the cash he throws around might come from unsavoury business practices. A fight breaks out and the dick is accidentally killed. Chester tries to hide the body and Rydal turns up to help him, from then on becoming the couple’s accomplice as they attempt to flee the scene of the crime and relocate to Crete. As Rydal and the MacFarlands journey across the island, trying to avoid any collision with the authorities and waiting for the fake passports that are being arranged by the young man’s shady Greek contacts, their friendship begins to crack. Chester turns increasingly to drink, and Colette becomes closer to Rydal who is nearer her age. Jealousies and tension threaten their relationship, all of which comes to a head as they’re stuck in the Minoan ruins at Knossos.

While the story could take place any time, Amini stays with the novel’s early 1960s setting, giving his film a period feel and pacing it in contemporary style. The sexual tension, while present as Chester starts suspecting his wife and Rydal of sparking an affair behind his booze-soaked back, is more oblique than shown and is actually toned down from what takes place in the novel. A key scene, in which Chester sleeps off his hangover with sedatives leaving Colette to make herself available to Rydal, is cut at the exact moment when it appears she’s moving in for a kiss. Does anything happen? The film implies yes, but it’s an unreliable narrator and you’re left wondering about the exact truth, whether Colette is a flighty piece of work or it’s all part of Chester’s mounting paranoia, which leads to him getting soaked and taking to the streets in a drunken, attention-grabbing pursuit.

Reviews have compared The Two Faces of January to The Talented Mr Ripley, another Highsmith adaptation that came out in 1999. If anything though, Amini appears to stick closer to Strangers on a Train and makes a film with definite shades of Hitchcock, Alberto Iglesias’s violin-driven score carrying heavy overtones of Bernard Herrmann as the suspense mounts. It’s lusciously filmed, the Greek scenery looking like an earthly paradise as a backdrop for the film’s dark deeds. Amini was fortunate enough to be given the rarely granted permission to film at the Acropolis, and at times had to stop shoots due to nearby riots taking place over the Greek government debt crisis.

At its heart, the film works on the performances of its three leads. I’ve been a fan of Mortsensen for some time, though I did get the initial impression his casting was a bit off the mark given Chester is written as a well fed, middle aged drunkard and the actor seems to have far too much charisma to make it work. In fact it’s just fine. Mortensen channels the spirit of Joseph Cotten in his playing, especially his tendency to mumble through some of the character’s drunker moments, and he even gets to copy Cotten’s malicious tone from Shadow of a Doubt when passing on some cynical life lessons about jaded maturity to Rydal, who transforms into a kind of spiritual son. As Chester’s veneer of easy charm cracks, his descent into drink and delusion is terrifying and Mortensen gets it across perfectly. Kirsten Dunst made little impression on me until her work in Melancholia, perhaps a case of waiting for the right and more mature roles to come along. The duplicity of her character, and her willingness to use beauty to switch her allegiances from Chester to Rydal as she realises the former is going down, is really well conveyed, suggesting a somewhat seedy back story of how she married the older man in the first place. And then there’s Oscar Isaac, an actor who has become ubiquitous with the last few years and in great form here. Rydal isn’t an especially great guy, but the personal tragedies that have relocated him from America and the fact he finds himself out of his depth as his fate intertwines with the MacFarlands makes him an engaging third lead, not so much a hero but certainly the least guilty of the three.

Made like a classical thriller, a bit like Mad Men in its decision to keep sex scenes and gaudy violence mostly off the screen, the Two Faces of January is a film I really enjoyed and I was disappointed that it vanished almost as soon as it appeared. It certainly warrants another look, especially with Highsmith’s work once again being promoted as the more personal Carol does the rounds and its performers receive recognition in Academy circles.

The Two Faces of January: ****