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‘The Two Faces of January’ an undercooked take on an overlooked Patricia Highsmith novel

two faces of january

The Two Faces Of January

Written and directed by Hossein Amini

USA and UK, 2014

Anyone acquainted with Roman theology or a pub quiz will know that January is a Anglicisation of the Roman god Janus, the two-faced figurine  who stands at the cusp of the new year, simultaneously musing backward at recent lessons and experiences, and peering forward to the murky and elusive future ahead, a guardian at the crossroads of the past and present. These twin impulses swirl in the miasma of Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Two Faces of January, first published in 1964. It’s a lesser-known work of her serrated literature, which is obsessed with psychological and sexual criminal deviancy, most famously brought to the screen by Hitchcock in the minor classic Strangers On A Train and by Anthony Minghella in 1999’s acclaimed The Talented Mr. Ripley. After decades of intense wrangling, accomplished screenwriter Hossein Amini (Jude, The Wings of the Dove, and more recently Drive), has brought this passion project to the silver screen, debuting as director. Sadly, this ambitious effort does not plunder the psychic caverns so rewardingly mined by his cinematic forebears.

Set in a sweltering Greece of 1962, two criminals psychologically wrestle for the affections of a recently anointed trophy wife and poorly sketched façade of feminine purity. Chester MacFarland (Mortensen) is on a relaxing tour of the tourist traps of the cradle of civilization, his wife Colette (Dunst) insisting on a visit to the essential Acropolis of Athens. The Acropolis is the hunting ground of small-scale grifter Rydal (Oscar Isaac), a young  American ex-pat who presents a cultivated image of the comprehensive tour guide, scamming gullible tourists out of drachma with the complicit aid of the local residents and market traders. Clearly enamored of the MacFarlands’ breeding and wealth, he accepts an invitation to dinner, and when returning to their five-star hotel to return a discarded brooch, he stumbles across Chester sequestering an apparently unconscious body. Unbeknownst to him, MacFarland’s disgruntled European creditors have set a private investigator to track him down and their confrontation has ended fatally. Immersed in the murder plot and hardly a paragon of virtue, Rydal is drawn into the illusory marriage, as he slowly becomes infatuated with Colette as they flee the authorities across Greece with increasingly anxious acceleration.

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It was only with the twin star wattage of Mortensen and Dunst that Amini was able to get financial backing from even an independent studio; the last straw was the casting of Isaac, who’s officially hot after his crooning turn in Inside Llewyn Davis and subsequent casting in the upcoming Star Wars franchise. Whilst this heat is transmitted to the screen in the form of a swelteringly sleazy travelogue of the Aegean sea, this rather flat and formless film lacks the crucial ingredient of flair. It is a handsomely mounted triangle of psychologically sourced deceit and misdirection, and the film simmers with a metaphorical sense of archeological locations, but for a sensuous thriller the film is more a overcast siesta than a blazing barbecue. Clearly, Amini’s intent is to ape the mood and pacing of the European arthouse thrillers of the 1960s, with their abject refusal to divert to action-paced editing or cinematic thrills and chills. An admirable restraint, perhaps, but the void left in this ideological wake provokes little sense of dramatic grip or any character-controlled psychic intrigue, as the cat-and-mouse narrative cruises along at a monotone pace.

Dunst feels sorely underwritten as a cipher for the men to battle over rather than having independent agency, as a crucial scene flags up queries of complicity and indoctrinated involvement which the remainder of the film proceeds to squander. The direction itself is flat and ultimately parses the drama to the domestic when it should soar to the mythic, although Mortensen’s and Isaac’s intrinsic charisma levers some fascination with the characters’ inevitably spiraling fates. This pedestrian take on The Two Faces Of January won’t  prompt youto  look both ways for safety when exiting the cinema, as a screenwriter as talented as Hossien needs to be looking forward to his next project, pronto.

— John McEntee


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