This review was originally written for Cherwell
‘Hussein Amini’s directorial debut is a captivatingly magnetic thriller, with three brilliantly engaging lead performances’
Promoted as being ‘From the producers of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, the author of The Talented Mr Ripley and the writer of Drive’, The Two Faces Of January promised much: a brooding, almost ominous atmosphere surrounding a stylish, seductive plot. It entirely delivers. Director Hossein Amini, the screenwriter behind Drive, has created a captivatingly magnetic thriller based on Patricia Highsmith’s 1964 novel, boasting three expertly nuanced performances from Viggo Mortensen, Kirsten Dunst and Oscar Isaac.
Mortensen and Dunst play Chester and Collette MacFarland, a rich American couple living an apparent life of modest indulgence in Athens, who make the acquaintance of the charmingly enigmatic Rydal (Isaac), a Greek-speaking American tour-guide/con-artist, who takes an immediate liking to Collette. The year is 1962 and all is achingly elegant: Mediterranean rays illuminating the folds of creased white linen jackets, chic continental cafés serving alcohol in the morning, and the marble of ancient ruins sparkling in the sun.
When a hired private investigator ‘representing some very unhappy clients’ is accidentally killed by Chester in a struggle, the MacFarland’s turn to Rydal for help, and the three flee together. Jealousy, suspicion and sexual intrigue abound as the trio’s relationship evolves. The relative simplicity of the plot allows Amini to explore the three characters in commendable depth.
The plot subtly embraces themes from classical mythology. There is something Oedipal about Rydal’s desire for Collette and, more obviously, there is some contorted father-son dynamic between Rydal and Chester. The story of Theseus’ return from slaying the Cretan Minotaur, his failure to announce his success and his father Aegeus’ consequent suicide, is related by Rydal to a group of tourist’s early on; this provides a subtle grounding for the relationship between the male leads, articulating the emotive concepts of filial duty, parental failure and shared disappointment.
Mortensen is thoroughly convincing as the quick-tempered Chester. He manages, with subtle contortions of the brow, to be simultaneously menacing and desperate, and one is never sure if he is the villain of the piece or not. His mounting concern over Collette’s faithfulness is masterfully portrayed and one slowly recognises a man whose intelligence is just sufficient to conceal his envious rage.
The other two leads are equally laudable. Rydal is torn between respect for Chester and affection for his wife and Isaac walks this fine line superbly. Dunst is adept as the compassionate Collette, whose distaste for her husband develops throughout and whose stifled longing for Rydal is entirely believable.
There is wonderful chemistry between all three characters. Rydal’s affection for Collette is barely mentioned, merely hinted at through sly glances and betrayed by uncomfortable silences, yet still undeniably prominent throughout. Chester and Rydal’s heightening animosity is delightfully drawn out, as is Collette’s steadily increasing exasperation.
There is undeniably something of the BBC’s original le Carré adaptations in Amini’s direction, let alone the 2011 film version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Tension is proficiently mounted without resorting to crassness, emotions are rarely explicit and the audience is refreshingly left to their own interpretations for the most part. The tension, the intrigue and the Englishman/American abroad vibe cannot help but put one in mind of Agatha Christie adaptations also, and there is a comparable elegance here.
Cinematographically, Amini’s film is arrestingly beautiful. Everything seems tinged with a refined, sepia-like tone that is alternately sinister and contemplative, perfectly correlating with the plot’s psychological intricacies. Throughout, the accompaniment of Spanish composer Alberto Iglesias score is fantastically appropriate. It writhes, twists and turns, reflecting the various emotional contortions the three leads undergo.
The Two Faces Of January is an impeccably crafted film, subtle, tense and utterly absorbing. Mortensen, Dunst and Isaac supply arguably their best performances to date and Amini’s direction is persuasive and assured.