Monday, 25 June 2012

Film Review | Carnage (2011)

Films based on plays are a curious breed; there are stylistic choices for the director, and none of them are the obvious selection. Do you take the story and characters of a play and retell it using solely the language of cinema, but risk displeasing both theatre fans and the playwright; or do you opt for essentially filming a stage performance, with all the facets of theatrical acting and direction, in the knowledge that what you create may alienate cinema-goers and feel somewhat underwhelming when compared to a full-on cinematic experience? Carnage opts firmly for the latter, and I can't remember the last time I saw such a strong argument for choosing this approach.

Based on the play God Of Carnage by Yasmina Reza, the film centres around a visit by one couple, Alan (Christoph Waltz) and Nancy Cowan (Kate Winslet), to the apartment of another, Michael (John C. Reilly) and Penelope Longstreet (Jodie Foster), after the Cowens' son strikes and injures the Longstreets' son with a stick whilst playing in the park. What starts as a brief and civil meeting to agree how the two boys can reconcile soon untangles into a much more tense and emotionally brutal affair.

As stated before, Polanski's film feels almost like a filmed performance on a stage, with the vast majority of the action taking place in one room in the Longstreets' Brooklyn apartment. There are a handful of scenes which venture into other rooms, as well as the action spilling into the apartment block hallway more than once, but this is a theatrical film with very little set changes. In this way, Polanski places pretty much all of his eggs in one basket, those eggs being the four actors playing the pair of couples.

It's a move which pays off dividends, with each performer putting in an incredibly strong performance. All four begin the film feeling somewhat forced and unnatural in their portrayals, but it soon becomes clear that this is entirely intentional, with each couple putting on a "performance" for the other. It's when the fur begins to fly that we truly see these actors at their best. Winslet is superb as the put-upon wife trying to make up for her husband Waltz's lack of care for middle class niceties and his constant preoccupation with his mobile phone. Both skilfully shed the layers of their facade as the situation unravels. Foster too is pleasingly strong as the doting mother and houseproud wife, slowly descending into hysteria and desperation. Of the four, Reilly is probably the least safe bet on paper, but he more than holds his own. Beginning the film as the buttoned-down hubby, he finally shows his true colours with a blistering performance from Reilly as an everyman on the edge.

The screenplay too, adapted by Polanski with original writer Reza, is an intoxicating powder keg waiting to explode. The first act of the film threatens to keep things largely civilised, but this is just Polanski waiting to signal the true nature of the uncomfortable yet ludicrously funny beast on show; once he does so, in spectacular fashion no less via one (involuntary) action of Winslet's character, things are firmly kicked into high gear until the credits roll. The dialogue fizzles with an enigmatic blend of realism and rhetoric, with only a couple of moments where what the characters are saying feels slightly too clever for its own good. These are minor niggles however in what is an exceptionally well-written film.

The mirror that the film holds up to a certain subset of society through these characters is hardly a new one, but the way in which Polanski does it has rarely been so entertaining. There is an intricate web of action and reaction, battle lines are drawn and redrawn with each character realigning themselves more than once. We move sublimely between character study to social satire to farce, with the whole thing poignantly put into perspective by the only two scenes set outside the apartment, shown to us behind the opening and closing credits. The brief running time of just under an hour and twenty minutes mean that none of the characters outstays their welcome.

Carnage establishes itself as a gem within theatrical film adaptations. It's smart, slick and deliciously over-the-top, with the quartet of actors at its centre making this the comprehensive success that it is. Polanski may not be the darling of the cinema world for reasons outside his work as a director; however, Carnage is a powerful statement of his expert directorial craftsmanship that still demands respect and the highest of praise.


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