The Two Faces Of January, film review: A slick seduction by the talented Mr Amini

4.00

(12A) Hossein Amini, 97 mins Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Kirsten Dunst, Oscar Isaac

Over the years, there have been some very fine Patricia Highsmith adaptations, Alfred Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train, Wim Wenders' The American Friend and Anthony Minghella's The Talented Mr Ripley among them. Hossein Amini's directorial debut belongs in their company, although this is in a smaller, more intimate groove than such predecessors.

Amini (the screenwriter of Drive and The Wings of the Dove) captures brilliantly that strange, queasy mix of seaminess and elegance that characterises Highsmith's crime stories. In Highsmith's world, clean-cut, attractive characters invariably end up behaving in a furtive and violent fashion. As the film delights in showing, the fates are always against them. They end up victims themselves, of the "cruel tricks that Gods play on men".

The Two Faces of January is about three Americans in Europe in the early 1960s. They bring out the very worst in each other. There is sexual and class tension between them. They are intensely suspicious of one another but are tied together by their own subterfuge.

Oscar Isaac (the star of the Coen brothers' Inside Llewyn Davis) is Rydal, a young tour guide and "fixer" in Athens who uses his good looks and proficiency in Greek to con and seduce American tourists. Viggo Mortensen and Kirsten Dunst play Chester and Colette MacFarland, a glamorous American couple on their version of a grand tour. He is a businessman, she is his new wife. The ironies are quickly layered on top of one another. Chester remarks that he wouldn't trust Rydal, a petty swindler, "to mow his lawn" but he himself is crooked on a far grander scale. Colette looks as demure as Doris Day but she is nowhere near as innocent as she seems.

One of the pleasures of the film is its sumptuous production design and widescreen cinematography. The film has a similar look to that of Hitchcock's American version of The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956.) Mortensen dresses in an immaculate white suit. Dunst is a slightly more glamorous version of the folksy, all-American wife.

Fresh face: Daisy Bevan plays Lauren in the film Fresh face: Daisy Bevan plays Lauren in the film
Crime thrillers are often set in dark, oppressive cities. Here, the action unfolds in the most picturesque surroundings imaginable, against the backcloth of the Parthenon and the Grand Hotel in Athens or in idyllic sea-front restaurants. The luxury and Mediterranean sunshine belie the increasingly desperate action of the three protagonists, who are soon hiding dead bodies in hotel rooms and fleeing across country in a ramshackle public bus.

For all its exotic locations, the film is still essentially a chamber piece – a three-hander in which Amini's interest rarely stretches further than the machinations of the benighted Americans. The plotting lacks the complexity of the best other Highsmith adaptations, which had far richer supporting casts and much more in terms of narrative twists. As in Roman Polanski's debut feature Knife in the Water, Amini's real preoccupation is with character rather than story. He is exploring the ever-shifting power relations between the three protagonists.

Mortensen became an international star on the back of his role in The Lord of the Rings. Partly as a result, his qualities as a character actor have sometimes been overlooked. Amini elicits one of his most intriguing performances as the enigmatic American businessman. On the one hand, he has a touch of Harry Lime-like flamboyance. (The final-reel showdown in Istanbul carries deliberate echoes of The Third Man.) On the other, he is a desperate man, in fear for his life and consumed by jealousy at his wife's increasing attraction to Rydal.

Intriguing performance: Viggo Mortensen stars as an enigmatic American businessman Intriguing performance: Viggo Mortensen stars as an enigmatic American businessman
Mortensen shows his character's rage and capacity for violence in subtle fashion, simply by the sudden way he will clench his fist or frown. He also hints at Chester's fascination with Rydal. There is a subtle, homoerotic element to the relationship between the men. "Truth is, we're joined at the hip," Chester tells Rydal at one stage of their shared guilt. They don't try as hard to get away from one another as might have been anticipated. In terms of his actions, Chester is despicable. In his manner, he is genial and charismatic. Mortensen understands this contradiction. He doesn't try to overplay Chester's villainy but nor does he set out to ingratiate himself with the audience. It's a very clever and understated performance. Even in the scene in which Chester becomes blind drunk, he is still inscrutable.

Oscar Isaac, fresh from playing a hapless Greenwich Village folk singer, is also appealing as another 1960s drifter. His Rydal has some Tim Ripley-like aspects but he is not quite as much as a sociopath as Highsmith's most famous anti-hero. He at least displays hints of conscience. If he is a swindler, he is one on a very much smaller scale than Mortensen's businessman with his Ponzi schemes.

Colette is an unusual role for Dunst – a seemingly conventional American wife who is less ignorant about her sharp practices than she lets on. Dunst is engaging enough but it is apparent that Amini's real interest is in the two men, not the woman who comes between them.

The Two Faces of January is a deceptive film: it is a much more intimate and claustrophobic affair than its lavish trappings would suggest. There is a certain frustration that the film-makers aren't able to develop its plot further. The film-making lacks the McGuffins, volte-faces and wealth of incidental detail that Hitchcock might have brought to the material. Its richness lies in the complexity of its characterisation.

Amini manages the unlikely feat of making us care about these three Americans who are ready to fast-talk, trick and, as a last resort, murder their way toward a better life. They are the villains but they are also the victims. They suffer grievously for their own misdeeds but even in their lowest moments, they never lose their poise or style.

Arts and Entertainment

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment
V&A museum in London

Art Piece taken off website amid 'severe security alert'

Arts and Entertainment
Over their 20 years, the band has built a community of dedicated followers the world over
music
Arts and Entertainment
The Wu-Tang Clan will sell only one copy of their album Once Upon A Time In Shaolin
musicWu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own only copies of their latest albums
Arts and Entertainment
Bradley Cooper, Alessandro Nivola and Patricia Clarkson on stage

film
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Kitchen plays Christopher Foyle in ITV's 'Foyle's War'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Downton Abbey star Joanne Froggatt will be starring in Dominic Savage's new BBC drama The Secrets

Arts and Entertainment
Vividly drawn: Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr Turner’
film
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
News
art

‘Remember the attackers are a cold-blooded, crazy minority’, says Blek le Rat

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
    Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

    Growing mussels

    Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project
    Diana Krall: The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai

    Diana Krall interview

    The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai
    Pinstriped for action: A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter

    Pinstriped for action

    A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter
    Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: 'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'

    Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: How we met

    'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef serves up his favourite Japanese dishes

    Bill Granger's Japanese recipes

    Stock up on mirin, soy and miso and you have the makings of everyday Japanese cuisine
    Michael Calvin: How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us