The Two Faces of January : A Film Review

imageThree people. Many faces.

The Two Faces of January.
Dir. Hossein Almani. 12a. 1hr 36mins.

Writers of a certain kind.
Missing from the large print in the Film release poster is the name Patricia Highsmith, the writer of the 1964 novel The Two faces of January which maybe points to insecurity on the publicist’s part knowing the novelist has a certain fixed clientele.
On Patricia Highsmiths part she followed in a tradition of modern female thriller writers, Daphne de Maurier, Agatha Christie and more recently P.D. James, Patricia Cornwell and Ruth Rendel all who liked a good cliffhanger and their readers liked being captured by intrigue. Patricia Highsmith also wrote The Talented Mr Ripleya.

Thriller writers sometimes favoured the heady salty air of exotic locations and following on from the renowned 1963 marriage of the Greek shipping magnate Aristotile Onnassis to Jackie Kennedy and the yacht and gold encrusted lifestyle that lay before the public Patricia Highsmith took up our curiosity of the people you might expect to be holidaying in Athens and the Greek islands, of their pursuits and reasons for being there. Made a change from the Philip Marlowe genre of crime fiction and thrillers with numerous nasty twists and turns.
In her novel the central pair meet up with a fellow American who, like them has his own reasons to be away from his homeland. Very little of it is to do with the wonders Greece has to offer. It is there merely a tool in their own complex refuge from whatever burden is in play that they are unable to face or deal with.

Ancient Mediterranean
The lengthy attraction of the Mediterranean climate was and is one of the wonders of the world. From Athens itself to the groups of islands, like Ios where Homer is buried with its Irish Over Seas manacle and it’s 365 plus churches crammed onto a small piece of paradise with clear blue waters and charismatic spring carpet of violets, to the Apollonian haunts of Naxos where Dionysus the god of fertility, wine and drama, a saintly trinity! worshipped, to the volcanic Santorini, to the island of three known identities, Mythilene, Lesbos or Kastros, to the 3000bc to 1100bc Minoan ruins of Knossos on Crete, home of the Minotaur, the islands were made to explore and dine on by the yachting set as well as the ferried tourist. This was a godsend of a place and time for any novelist to turn up highly imaginative exotic and adventurous drama.

While the book has to set up the atmosphere of locations, the harbour side tavernas, the ever present antiquity, the opulence of some quarters and the pace of life, the film drenches you from the get go with the entrancing images in which the characters pop up. The laidback relaxed anonymity of the tourist locations suits it seems, the main characters, Colette the breezy Kirsten Dunst, all attractive, refreshing and as intoxicating as a mint julep only a permanently sustaining delicacy. Her husband Chester, Viggo Mortensen is onto his third marriage and this one might be for keeps, foolish not to, as his chain smoking and whiskey chasing lifestyle might in any case make it his last marriage anyway and so he hopes it will endure. They are a loved up union and clearly react to each other’s take on life on an equal footing. Adventure seems a real driver for both. There is a considerable difference in age also.

When they encounter the young tour guide Rydal, Oscar Issacs they establish a rapport almost instantly and hook up on a firm footing to share each other’s compainionship as fellow Americans. It suits both parties and the not so impressionable Chester has his guard up straight away and marks up one initial day to try out the tourist and tour guide thing. He has his reasons for getting into the tourist mindset, if only to actually become one and take whatever is on his mind off it, take stock, forge an experience for himself and Collette.

So there you have it a chance encounter has set up the intrigue of what these people are really about. Apart from being here as opposed to the lesser choice of elsewhere, it is not a bad place to wander into this dilemma. The scenery and old buildings, the luxury of Grand living are there. Chester fills ashtrays in the swankIest joints and has the beautiful wing woman Collete as his dearest and adored partner.

This aperitif, the luxurious quarters, the random choices made of itinerary are a prelude to the anticipated twists within this fortuitous situation, one that changes once the engagement of Rydal is in play. A flick of the pen and Patricia Highsmith alters things. Rydal does a routine rip off routine when it comes to trading with the locals as is nothing more than a boost to his earnings. It also is a racket most seem to engage in as far as the relatively rich tourist is concerned.

We come hopeful of well worked narrative and jeopardy and are not in the least going to be disappoInted. They did things differently when this film was set. 1964. Apart from smoking a great deal, they had no double jeopardy of late night clubs, cheap alcohol and decibels piled high. No overcrowded streets. This was old Athens and from Piraeus port the ferries docked and transported all and sundry to and from the islands.
The only thing that struck me as unreal being the efficiency of the seafaring and transport. Taxi cabs were as usual cash devouring and fares etc. ad hoc but they were clean and shiny and the city had a sense of deserved pride. Waiters, (no waitresses) were not hard to find and while the writer/director did not introduce any discourse of anxiety it was probably because the tables the companions were usually at tipped generously. Part of the Greek dining experience is that it is expected to be laid back.
There is also a Greek relaxed engagement when Ouzo and wine loosen the atmosphere. As far as lively entertainment, well it is also relaxed and normal as you would expect culturally. Today is totally different so this period piece enjoys another set of standards.

It packs a punch
In Athens the two faces of Chester become quickly apparent and it begins an hectic journey of suspense, disbelief, emotion and sequences cleverly conceived and delivered by screenwriter, director, Hossein Amini whose mix of close ups and action, dark interiors, period exactness – in an early scene, was the terrace taverna of the Grandest part of Athens so probably indecently correct in every detail, table lights instead of candles and fine unrusticated furniture. Indecently correct and opulent.

Oscar Issacs has his work cut out from the get go also and given his lust which outmanoeuvres any money advancement to be gained from his rich commisioner, he is kept sufficiently on his toes to know he should chose his footsteps carefully.
Both men do not trust each other and at a level up from normal tourist mistrust.

There is movement of location and some Greek islands feature.
The season is indeterminate but for a ‘January’ it looks a shade too unshady.
There are a few other destinations in line and this only reinforces the period atmosphere and the continuity of life, the pace pre Visa card, pre backpack and scooter, pre packaged, pre bucket shop holidays. Pre Troika and bad, really bad banking and governments juicing its public to pay for it and its cohorts corruption. This was religious, (generalising) flat capped Greece, marine and agrarian, getting on with its gift of hospitality and their loyal attachment to the ancient, almost intrinsic essence of their intriguing heritage and present lifestyle.
It is also an irreversible time never to be replicated except in books and works of drama.

The Two faces of January
If anything the drama we encounter is relativly off centre and not ground breaking or world changing. It is a tight drama which has nerves (for the more sensitive among you!) jangling befitting the writers compulsion to surprise. They knew also how to tailor, making suits tough, as Chester’s lasts a very long time and seems to have been constructed by James Bond’s apparel maker.
Heavy grade linen compressed and refined Irish super stock?!

I was going to mention there was no mention of January and just did.
This allusion seems to fit the story and the film title very loosely.
The purpose of the title, I have not read the book, could be intrinsically linked with the following if you wanted to extend credit to the authors ultimate framework which does merit much credit and should and does offer cunning facility to the story.

The Two faces of January is far removed from the pace of mainland Europe than we are used to imagining but such is the adroitness of the director, and the cinematographer in nimbly framing this past era it instantly evokes the Patricia Highsmith attentiveness to the crucial isolation found in the narrative. She gives the characters narrow choices in this Mediterranean cluster by virtue of its many faces.

There is a clear play on words in the title with the Roman diety Janus, Janus-faced having the implicit recognition of two contradictory aspects found.
Who could that possibly be?!
Being an Aquarian (January) I am quite upset at the notion and contest it vigorously but on the other hand … !
Given the Roman habit of creating Saints; a miracle took place recently in Rome when the JP2 and the other one were welcomed into the fold, St Januaris may have fallen short of the administered deity we imagine is necessary. Men make Saints and ignore God’s teaching.

Viggo Mortesen is convincing and consistently unpredictable, playing this part with a restraint and affability true to his character and displays some wry confidence belying the stacking changes that occur. A well constructed, hard won confidence ‘attribute’ of the personality acted out. His concerns are not helped by a growing worry he is being challenged in the relationship stakes by his new companion and what he might have in mind.
He might not get a mint julep but having access to whiskey helps his mind organise and wipe out temporary concerns. Things always change.

Kirsten Dunst plays a classic companion with little misjudgement in evidence save her unstated desires, which makes her slightly unreadable and occasionally her fragility surfaces and Kirsten Dunst gets to create a little more depth to the simplified characterisation she has to deal with, alongside the evolving story dominated by the intensity Viggo Mortensen gets to play out. Patricia Highsmith maybe was not interested in framing bigger and complex detail not wanting it to get in the way of a basically formulaic adventure story. Only sometimes does it conspire to give Collette more memorable and provocative feminine traits in grabbing custody of events.

Conclusion.
#### 4

This is an excellent classic thriller piece with a tight narrative. With hooks and little space to manouvre it creates a tension all the way through with fluctuating and never straight moral choices impinging. Certain fixed positions are taken for self preservation reasons mainly and the Mediterranean location heightens the contrasts of sedentary and adventure driven lives. There is little antiquity involved. When it does appear initially it is the youthful, Parthenon, then the civilisation of some almost five thousand years ago makes an appearance as a mere backdrop setting for more twists.

Hossein Almani has crafted a very attractive movie, well acted by all characters, with spot on minor roles also and Almani relied on his wise cinematic instinct to tell his version of a story with changing pace, alteration, changing evocative scenery and dramatic sequences all working at what cinema is best at delivering convincing dramatic environments. This is where also ecapism, emotional realism, historic tales and fantasy convey story.

This film should succeed in convincing you the art of cinema has many faces as it captures the sense of genus loci of Greece with a characters and human interest at the edge of rare dilemma.
The Two Faces of January is entertainIng, fairly intense, taut and offers up the Janus personality traits of characters you hopefully avoid on your travels and for that matter anytime.

QFT Friday 16 May 2014 through to 29 May 2014 (check June listing to see if any carry over into June.)

John Graham

15 May 2014

Belfast

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