The Two Faces Of January
Director: Hossein Amini
Starring: Kirsten Dunst, Viggo Mortensen, Oscar Isaac
94 mins; Class 12; KRS
The novelist Patricia Highsmith has provided much fodder for film-makers over the years, including director Alfred Hitchcock’s seminal 1951 Strangers on a Train and, of course, 1999’s The Talented Mr Ripley. The latter provided superb roles for the likes of Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jude Law, Cate Blanchett and Philip Seymour Hoffman.
Highsmith’s The Two Faces of January provides equally meaty parts to its three protagonists. Viggo Mortensen and Kirsten Dunst play Chester and Colette MacFarland, a stylish and charming couple vacationing in Greece in the summer of 1962.
They are befriended by Rydal, a young American working as a tourist guide while beefing up his income by swindling young nubile tourists. Impressed by Rydal’s knowledge of the country and its language, the MacFarlands invite him to dinner. He, in turn, is seduced by their wealth and Colette’s beauty.
When Rydal discovers, however, that Chester is in some trouble, he agrees to assist them. As the three embark on a journey together, a tension-fraught battle of wits explodes as Rydal threatens to come between Chester and Collette.
The Two Faces of January features typical Highsmith hallmarks – stunning, sunny locations providing the backdrop to storylines that take murky twists and turns and sophisticated characters who boast genial and open exteriors which hide dark, complex and oftentimes violent interiors.
The novel was adapted for the screen by Hossein Amini, who also superbly steps behind the camera for the first time after an auspicious Oscar-nominated screenwriting career. Amini’s adaptation is adept at introducing the characters, establishing Rydal’s motivations and Chester’s back story, and it slowly ratchets up the tension as the MacFarlands’ ostensibly idyllic holiday turns into a nightmare.
As can be gleaned by the film’s title and its reference to the Roman God Janus and his two faces looking into the future and the past, the three main characters are built on duplicity. They have subtle but powerful character arcs which, by the end, render them completely different to their personas at the start.
Chester is suave, handsome and poised… yet he is also a man who hides many insecurities that bring forth his ugly paranoia and jealousy. Colette may appear beautiful and vapid, the stereotypical younger wife of a wealthy man, yet she is more than that. As the situation for the threesome gets more complicated, more than a little intelligence begins to shine through. Rydal is a small-time thief, an unsympathetic character clearly leeching from those better off than him. Yet, his fascination with the MacFarlands goes deeper than their wealth.
And it is the characters that linger longest after the credits roll, and Amini gets great support from his leading trio. The three share remarkable chemistry between them. Mortensen and Dunst are utterly convincing as a couple in love until the cracks begin to show with Rydal’s appearance. Up-and-comer Oscar Isaac is entirely compelling and with this and his acclaimed performance in the Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis, he has finally hit the big leagues.
They each perfectly embody the complexities of all three characters who, despite their many faults, the bad choices they make and their oftentimes appalling behaviour, are all too human and relatable. By the time the inevitable happens, we realise we care for them deeply.
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