The Two Faces of January

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Terence Gavish

6 comments

  • D. H. 2 years ago
    21 of 22 people found the following review helpful
    4.0 out of 5 stars
    Mortensen and Isaac shine in an old-fashioned suspense film, August 30, 2014
    By 
    D. H. (Maryland) –

    This is the directorial debut of Hossein Amini, the Iranian-born British screenwriter of such celebrated literary adaptations as The Wings of the Dove and Drive. (He also contributed to rather more coldly remembered pictures, including Snow White and the Huntsman and 47 Ronin, but let us not focus on this.) Here, he adapts The Two Faces of January, a 1964 novel by the late Patricia Highsmith, a novelist whose macabre stories and unusual personal life continue to fascinate readers worldwide. Oscar Isaac portrays Rydal, an American living abroad in Greece, earning his living as a charismatic tour guide and small-time confidence artist. He becomes acquainted with Chester (Viggo Mortensen), a wealthy man on holiday with his beautiful wife, Colette (Kirsten Dunst). Chester, however, has a past: he earned his fortune swindling investors with a story of a nonexistent oil field. His past catches up with him in the form of a gun-toting private investigator. After a violent late-night encounter with the private eye, Chester and his wife find themselves on the run in a foreign land they do not know. Rydal decides to help them, though he does not understand at first the complex and dangerous ramifications of his choice.

    This is an old-fashioned and slowly burning suspense film, elegant and involving. The locations throughout both urban and rural Greece lend themselves to sumptuous photography, and the period sixties costuming is eye-catching. The performances, too, are strong, which is not a surprise considering the caliber of the cast. Mortensen is among the finest actors of his generation, able to rivet and convey the depth of a moment, of a feeling, with a single glance or gesture. His character in this film is a deceitful man trying to disguise his increasing desperation behind a veil of practiced suavity. He is matched and complemented by Isaac, who also maintains a pleasant and teasing ambiguity: as played by the rising star, his character seems to be at once earnestly in over his head and craftily weighing his options. Dunst’s role is not as nuanced, though she achieves a Grace Kelly-esque glamor.

    Overall, the film falls a couple levels short of the twisting, turning, and creepily sensual resonance of arguably the finest Highsmith adaptation, the 1999 version of The Talented Mr. Ripley which transformed Jude Law into an international star. Still, moment for moment, Amini’s picture pleases the senses and engages the mind, and it is an undeniable treat to see Mortensen and Isaac circle one another, lying and toying and ultimately angling for the jugular.

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  • Darren 2 years ago
    18 of 22 people found the following review helpful
    4.0 out of 5 stars
    Noir among the ruins, September 7, 2014
    By 
    Darren

    Verified Purchase(What’s this?)
    This review is from: The Two Faces of January (Amazon Video)
    Familiar territory: “The Two Faces of January” is about rich and morally bankrupt Americans feasting on the carcass of post-war Europe, much like the miserable woman who wrote the novel on which this film is based. Patricia Highsmith’s characters, members of America’s leisure class, are not always respectable and are certainly always morally compromised even before her plots set them into motion. But they always seem grand and charming at first, don’t they? While this story isn’t part of the “Ripliad’, its themes are similar to those books, and “Rydal” (Oscar Issac) is almost a rewrite of the young version of Tom Ripley, with the exception that this young man comes from respectable money, unlike working-class Tom. However, genteel origins don’t make Issac any nicer than his literary doppelganger: he supplements a scanty income as a tour guide in Athens by shortchanging on restaurant tabs young tourist girls whom he charms. Anything to avoid going back home to the States. He even missed his father’s funeral. When he sees married couple Viggo Mortensen and Kirsten Dunst walk by at the Parthenon, he glares covetously at Mortensen, and we assume at first that the usual Highsmithian homoeroticism is up on-deck, but not this time, as it turns out: both men are firmly hetero. Isaac regards Mortensen, with his splendid cream-colored summer suit, merely as a mark. Any prurient interests are directed toward Dunst.

    But that’s all I got with this character, and I think it’s a serious flaw in the movie. Isaac’s Rydal is just too opaque and inconsistent. I don’t know if that’s Highsmith’s fault (haven’t read the book) or writer/director Hossein Amini’s fault. It’s certainly not Isaac’s fault. This is a tremendous new talent on the scene, and, without his “Inside Llewyn Davis” beard, he reminded me of a Godfather-era Al Pacino. (By the way, if you want to see him really shine, watch that Coen Brothers movie.) One moment he’s a charming young American kid, another he’s a sleazy small-con operator, and later he fancies himself macho enough to tell Mortensen to “lay off” when the latter is arguing with his wife. That’s one contradictory facet too many, and once the movie’s crisis gets them on the road to Crete, he continues to shapeshift between these different personas rather than settle down to an essence. Isaac isn’t the two-faced Janus alluded to by the title; he’s a multitude of little crescent faces. We also don’t know what motivates him. Cash? Dunst’s knickers? Both? What? I suppose he considers the older American couple as surrogate parents, but, despite clues at the beginning of the film, this angle isn’t much pursued until the final act, and in any case his desire for Dunst adds a creep-factor that’s somewhat mitigated by Mortensen being about 20 years older than Dunst. Oh who knows — it’s all more clear in the book, doubtless. I think Amini overdid the ambiguity through most of the picture.

    Mortensen and Dunst are easier birds. Mortensen is splendid here — best performance in years. He has dropped that annoying whispering thing that he used to do, and speaks with the clear and easy authority of a man long used to the Good Life, while also being careful to include a slight twang in his voice that indicates origins of a more humble nature. He also convinces as a shambling, drunken, jealous wreck. Dunst isn’t given too much to do, but the situation doesn’t really require much from her, as she’s caught between these two panther-like con artists who keep circling around her. I’ll say this, though — my god is she good-looking. She’s aging like a fine wine. She utterly rocks those early-Sixties’ vintage summer dresses.

    The film features stunning location shooting in Greece, Crete, and Istanbul. In Crete, they even shot footage in and around Knossos. What a magnificently ugly place Crete is: jagged rocks jutting up from soil-less bedrock. Crete once had richly wooded hills until the ancient people of the Minoan civilization cut all the trees down, turning the island into a moonscape. Along with Easter Island, Crete stands as a silent warning against indiscriminate exploitation of the land. Yeah, this has nothing to do with the plot, but the island is featured in the movie so I’m throwing it in there.

    4 out of 5. Will appeal to anyone who values mood, setting, and story. You know — the old values that used to matter.

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  • The Movie Guy 2 years ago
    9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
    4.0 out of 5 stars
    I LOOKED UP TO MY FATHER AS IF HE WAS A GOD, August 31, 2014
    By 
    The Movie Guy (United States) –

    This review is from: The Two Faces of January (Amazon Video)
    The film is based on a novel by Patricia Highsmith. Rydal (Oscar Isaac) is an American living abroad working as a tour guide fleecing American tourists. He has father issues. He meets Chester (Viggo Mortensen) MacFarland who reminds him of his father and his wife Colette (Kirsten Dunst) who he desires in an Oedipus kind of way.

    Chester gets into trouble and must go on the run. Rydal comes along with and get tangled in his life.

    Janus was a two faced god who looked both forward and backward. The title refers to Rydal, who is a younger form of Chester, two people who are alike but different in age. The story takes on aspects of a Greek Tragedy. The action is slow. The film is more drama than thriller. It is about relationships, that could have been better developed. (I imagine the book did that.)

    This is not a film for everyone. It is well acted, but the plot moves slow.

    Parental Guide: No F-bombs, sex, or nudity.

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  • Grady Harp 2 years ago
    19 of 20 people found the following review helpful
    4.0 out of 5 stars
    `Darling, they can’t hurt you if you don’t let them.’, May 8, 2012
    By 
    Grady Harp (Los Angeles, CA United States) –
    (HALL OF FAME REVIEWER)
      
    (VINE VOICE)
      
    (TOP 100 REVIEWER)
      

    This review is from: W.E. (DVD)
    The much maligned, brief theatrical film by Madonna – W.E. – fairs better on the small screen than it likely did in the movie houses. The stories are bifurcated, each one resembling a television creation – one a docudrama biopic, the other a contemporary soap opera. That Madonna, who directed and wrote the screenplay with Alek Keshishian, decided to mix the two stories is a bit daring but in some ways it works very well. In other ways the parallel stories seem like time traveling cars on the same highway that never quite travel at the same speed or quality.

    The film mixes the notorious affair between King Edward VIII and American divorcée Wallis Simpson with a contemporary romance between a married woman and a Russian security guard. The time is 1998 and at an auction of the estate of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor unhappily married ex-Sotheby employee Wally Winthrop (Abbie Cornish) becomes obsessed by their historic love story. Her own marriage to womanizing, abusive psychiatrist William (Richard Coyle) undermines her feelings of worth and as she learns more about the sacrifices involved in the famous affair, she gains her own courage to find happiness.

    The film flips back and forth between the present and the 1930s and it is the historical aspect of the film that is almost flawless. We get to know Wallis Simpson (in a brilliant portrayal by Andrea Riseborough) and understand her failed first two marriages (at the time we meet her she is still married to Ernest Simpson played by David Harbour), and see the American sizzle that made her the talk of England. When Wallis wrangles her way to meet Prince Edward, better known as David, (James D’Arcy) there is a chemistry that develops to the point of passion and ultimately leads to Wallis divorcing Ernest to marry Edward – a deed that leads to Edward’s abdication of the throne for `the woman I love’, which he had assumed when King George V (James Fox) dies, to his stammering brother Bertie (Laurence Fox) and his caustic wife Elizabeth (Natalie Dormer). The paparazzi make their life miserable and the couple is not allowed to return to England until Edward dies, with the faithful Wallis supportively by his side through 36 years of marriage.

    Wally – meanwhile – longs to be pregnant but sustains such abuse from William that she ultimately yields to the loving friendship the auction house Russian security guard Evgeni (Oscar Isaac) and begins her life again. The two stories are connected by Wally’s obsession with the royal couple’s notorious affair and at auction’s end she is given access to private letters between Wallis and Edward that have been in the possession of Mohamed Al-Fayed (Haluk Bilginer) – a tacked on ending that feels ill at ease and redundant.

    Everyone connected t the biopic angle of this film is excellent and Madonna shows that she knows how to direct affairs of the heart in a royal situation very well indeed. Both Andrea Riseborough and James D’Arcy are superb and the costumes and music and cinematography of this historical portion are exceptionally well done. Though the idea of the contemporary sluggish story is reasonable, Abbie Cornish seems uncomfortable with the script: Oscar Isaac shines as her new love. In all the film, though spotty, has merit and it not a bad debut for Madonna as director. Grady Harp, May 12

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  • K. Harris 2 years ago
    42 of 52 people found the following review helpful
    3.0 out of 5 stars
    Romanticizing History: Madonna’s Story of Parallel Lives Lacks Depth But Sure Looks Pretty On The Surface, April 25, 2012
    By 
    K. Harris (StudioCityGuy33 at Yahoo dot com) –
    (TOP 50 REVIEWER)
      
    (HALL OF FAME REVIEWER)
      

    After seeing Madonna’s love letter to controversial Wallis Simpson “W.E” get savaged by the mainstream media, I was somewhat apprehensive about the film. The love affair between Simpson and King Edward VIII is a stunning and momentous true-life story that resulted in him abdicating the crown and becoming a lifelong exile from the country he had served. It is unparalleled in terms of historical significance. What a fantastic subject! I knew that Madonna had a particular interest in Simpson’s side of the story, so this seemed a novel approach to a somewhat familiar tale. From advance previews, it seemed that the film was positioned to be a sweeping romance so I didn’t really expect a by-the-numbers historical biography. And in truth, I learned little new about the pair that I hadn’t seen in countless other representations. But even taken on its own terms, I don’t know that “W.E.” really accomplishes what it set out to do. It’s not all bad, by any stretch, but the movie keeps the viewer at arm’s length throughout.

    In a strange decision, Madonna and her co-writer Alek Keshishian filter the famous love story through the eyes of a modern woman (Abbie Cornish). Cornish plays a rather expressionless upscale housewife tortured by an extravagant lifestyle and an inattentive husband. Just to elicit some sympathy for her plight of complete freedom and wealth, her husband is made out to be a cackling caricature of evil. Cornish is obsessively fixated on Wallis Simpson in a very creepy way (Simpson stories play non-stop on the radio and TV, she spends every waking moment studying memorabilia from the time period, and she has imaginary conversations with her idol). Of course, this aloof and troubled married woman is like catnip to a museum security officer (Oscar Isaac) and we all know where that is headed. In a fugue state, we see flashbacks to the courtship between Simpson and the King. Luckily, the scenes from the past are certainly more compelling than the contemporary plot thread which did not elicit my interest at all.

    Andrea Riseborough and James D’Arcy are actually quite good in the titular roles and any opportunity to escape into their world is a welcome one. However, if you want solid history, this isn’t going to provide it. It’s a bare bones examination of the political climate, the other members of the monarchy, or anything of substance. The more controversial aspects of the pair are mentioned, but dismissed as sheer rumor without any introspection. Okay, fine, than hopefully this is a stunning romance. Well, not really. I never felt the real chemistry between these two. In fact, Simpson (especially in their courtship) seems to be manipulating the relationship from the start. I’m willing to believe this was a tremendous love story in real life, but this screenplay never convinces me in the film. And when we’re supposed to view Simpson with great empathy at what she’s sacrificed, her supposed misery and suffering just hasn’t been well established.

    And yet, for its faults, I must admit that this is one gorgeous movie! The shot compositions are interesting, the sets are extravagant, the Oscar nominated costumes are lovely, the orchestrations are lush and beautiful. Technically, “W.E.” is extremely impressive. The film’s shortcomings have little to do with the actors. If half of the movie hadn’t been spent in modern times, this might well have been an entirely more satisfying experience. I didn’t hate the movie by any means, I think it fell short of its potential and the narrative framing device was a particularly egregious mistake. About 2 1/2 stars, I’ll round up for what might have been. KGHarris, 4/12.

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  • Michael B. Druxman 2 years ago
    14 of 16 people found the following review helpful
    4.0 out of 5 stars
    Parallel Stories, April 15, 2012
    By 
    Michael B. Druxman (Austin, TX) –

    W. E. is a handsome film, co-written and directed by Madonna, which deals with the scandalous romance between Edward, the Duke of Windsor, and his American Duchess, twice-divorced Wallis Simpson.

    Like JULIE & JULIA, the picture tells two parallel stories. One deals with Wally Winthrop (Abbie Cornish) an unhappily married woman during the 1990swho is totally obsessed with Wallis Simpson (Andrea Riseborough), and even imagines having conversations with her. Indeed, in one of these fantasy moments, Simpson turns to Wally and snaps, “Get a life!” The other story follows the path of Edward (James D’Arcy) and the woman who caused him to abdicate the throne of England.

    The actors are excellent, as is Madonna’s direction. The problem with this film is that the modern story, which dominates, is really not as intriguing as the historical one, even though we know how that one will turn out. Unfortunately, it’s apparent from the start how the fictional Wally Winthrop’s saga is going to end also.

    The movie does, however, make some interesting points about the difference between the legendary “fairy tale” romance and reality.

    Oscar Isaac, Natalie Dormer, Richard Coyle and James Fox co-star in the film, released in a 3-disc (DVD/Blu-Ray/Digital) set by Anchor Bay Entertainment. The sole extra is a well done “Making of” featurtette.

    © Michael B. Druxman

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