Closer (15)

A love story for our times
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The Independent Culture

Remember when love meant never having to say you're sorry? That was in Love Story, back in 1970. Cut to 2005, and Closer, and it turns out that now love means constantly having to say you're sorry, usually because you've just told your beloved that you have been sleeping with somebody else - though from time to time it is the beloved who has been doing the sleeping, and you are apologising for screaming obscenities or hitting them.

Remember when love meant never having to say you're sorry? That was in Love Story, back in 1970. Cut to 2005, and Closer, and it turns out that now love means constantly having to say you're sorry, usually because you've just told your beloved that you have been sleeping with somebody else - though from time to time it is the beloved who has been doing the sleeping, and you are apologising for screaming obscenities or hitting them.

Closer, directed by Mike Nichols, and adapted by Patrick Marber from his own stage play, opens with something that looks almost like a traditional boy-meets-girl scenario, though right from the start it has an ecstatic lilt that is fresh. Strolling along a busy London street on the way to his job at a newspaper obituaries page, Dan (Jude Law) spies Alice (Natalie Portman), a stripper. Their eyes meet, and she fails to notice the cab charging in her direction. At the hospital where she gets her leg fixed up, they flirt.

A year later, they are living together. But now Dan falls for Anna (Julia Roberts), a photographer; she is also attracted, but has scruples. Later, Dan visits an online sex chatroom, pretending to be a "cum-hungry bitch" called Anna. Larry, a doctor, is much taken with this persona; they arrange a date. By massive coincidence (or because Dan has set it up - I wasn't clear which), Larry runs into the real Anna and, thinking she is his online succuba, bombards her with small-talk about massive cocks. Despite this dodgy start, they become an item.

After that, the action can start in earnest: infidelity, interrogation, confession, intimidation, reproach and deceit. It's not uncommon in the literature of romance for deceit to be presented as a bad thing - doesn't honesty lie at the heart of every good relationship? Perhaps it does; but most relationships aren't all that good, at least not all the time. It's noticeable here how often the principals ask each other why they had to tell the truth, or plead for a consoling lie. This is not necessarily a cynical view: when the truth is going to hurt, deceit can be more loving. At other times, too, the characters make a point of demanding the truth, even knowing how painful it will be: because they enjoy the pain, or because it's a price worth paying for the moral high ground?

Marber's script is wonderfully thorough in its exploration of the permutations of desire and betrayal, and the cast serve it brilliantly. I had feared that the fact of the women being American, the men British, might unbalance it, make it seem like an encounter between Old World and New. If anything, though, making the girls American helps, by taking class out of the equation (a nice middle-class newspaper obituarist and a stripper? Now really).

I don't even want to bother trying to anatomise Portman and Law's performances, both are so seamless - and of course, it's always reassuring to see the visibly perfect playing rumpled and ordinary, as if they were within our reach. As Anna, the least realised of the characters, Julia Roberts feels slightly distanced from the action, but still delivers her lines with an intelligence and bite that leave you wondering why she's wasted her career on so much fluff. There's been a lot of talk about Oscars: but if any of them gets one, it ought to be Clive Owen, for daring to be so unlikeable - his Larry is clammy, self-pitying, a little bit thuggish.

When all the leads are so good, you have to think that the director is doing something right. All in all, I'd say Mike Nichols does most of it right, including London - you get an acute sense of the urban space in which the relationships take place (an exception is the gallery where Anna exhibits her work - wrong sort of venue on the wrong sort of street). Watching it, though, I couldn't help remembering Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, his first film, another four-hander taken from a successful stage play, in which disintegrating relationships are played out through brilliant snappy lines. Nichols' emotional range doesn't seem to have expanded a great deal in the last 40 years.

That's my reservation with Closer as a whole: it strikes me as a case of arrested development, as embodying an undergraduate cleverness and cynicism. Marber's dialogue crackles, and at times is very witty as well as sharp (the internet chat-up, especially Dan's orgasm by keyboard, is one of the funniest scenes I've watched in a while). But it would be nice to hear some authentic sogginess. And no real sexual relationship is as exclusively concerned with sex as these relationships are: though the action supposedly spans several years, it's hard to get any sense of history, of the way that mutual familiarity doesn't simply diminish desire but sidelines it.

I admired Closer enormously, for the quality of the acting, the pricking of intelligence in practically every frame. It is a supremely smart, sophisticated film. Just don't go mistaking that for depth.

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