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.

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