0556 | The Two Faces Of January

Hossein Amini was behind the screenplays for Iain Softley’s adaptation of The Wings Of The Dove and Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive, among others, so he was reasonably well-known among film fans before making his debut as a director with 2014’s The Two Faces Of January. As first projects go it’s a fairly safe bet: based on Patricia Highsmith’s novel of the same name, it’s a close cousin to her Ripley stories, some of which have successfully made the transition from page to screen before, most notably in 1960 (Plein Soleil) and 1999 (The Talented Mr. Ripley). Amini adapted this particular book himself, and wisely he stayed true to the early-1960s setting, thereby allowing his stars to look pretty damn good in their smart and stylish vintage costumes. The three in question are Viggo Mortensen, Kirsten Dunst and Oscar Isaac; the former two play Chester and Colette McFarland, an American married couple on holiday in Athens, while the latter is Rydal, a young American tour guide who scams tourists in his newly-adopted Greek home. All three appear to come from moneyed backgrounds, though as per usual with Highsmith’s stories initial appearances can be deceptive, and the two men in particular are adept at keeping their true intentions and their past indiscretions hidden. Their paths cross at the Acropolis, initially, and Rydal lays the charm on thick, impressing Colette while simultaneously irritating (and later conning) Chester. The trio do share an enjoyable evening together along with Rydal’s date Lauren (Daisy Bevan), but later on Rydal discovers Chester isn’t the man he thought he was, and witnesses the aftermath of a situation that developed in the McFarland hotel suite: Rydal initially tries to help Chester as he feels he will be rewarded handsomely for any services he can provide, but he also does this so that he can spend more time with Colette, and as their mutual attraction develops the two men end up at loggerheads.

oscar-isaac-in-the-two-faces-of-january-(2014)-large-picture

Oscar Isaac in The Two Faces Of January

Amini makes a decent fist of it: the three main actors are fine – though it’s a shame that none of them excel – and the material has been handled confidently enough, the director notably employing a brisk pace and a number of medium and long shots to show off the impressive locations. The narrative skips from mainland Greece across the sea to Crete – the labyrinth of Knossos featuring during one vaguely twisty sequence – and on to Turkey, where the bazaars of Istanbul form the backdrop for a final act showdown. It’s all rendered in a very modishly-retro and sun-kissed fashion, though I wonder whether the emphasis is on style at the expense of substance; the title of Highsmith’s book nods to Greek mythology, but Amini struggles to link this ancient culture to his American characters, save for a brief shot of a mural depicting Theseus and the Minotaur after Chester and Rydal come to blows. The trio aren’t particularly memorable or interesting, and what happens to each one in turn is fairly predictable; no doubt it’s because of the Mediterranean setting but I kept wanting a Tom Ripley or a Dickie Greenleaf to suddenly gatecrash the film. Still, there are some enjoyable tense moments, particularly as characters attempt to outsmart one another at ferry terminals and airports, and all told it’s a neat, compact and unchallenging thriller, containing the kind of lovely cinematography that’ll make you ache for a holiday in south-western Europe.

Directed by: Hossein Amini.
Written by: Hossein Amini. Based on The Two Faces Of January by Patricia Highsmith.
Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Oscar Isaac, Kirsten Dunst.
Cinematography: Marcel Zyskind.
Editing: Nicholas Chaudeurge, Jon Harris.
Music: Alberto Iglesias.
Certificate: 12.
Running Time: 94 minutes.
Year: 2014.

Comments 11

  1. Mark Walker June 1, 2016

    I was actually a huge fan of this one, man. It ended up in my personal top ten of 2014. I thought the whole cat-and-mouse angle was handled brilliantly and it held my attention with ease. Beautifully shot too. The only gripe I had was how it all unravelled. It was deserving of stronger ending and not one that felt rushed.

    • Stu June 1, 2016

      I was interested for the most part but I wish there’d been a little more to each character. Isaac’s was probably the most intriguing one initially, but a lot of the mystery seemed to just fall away quite early on. I enjoyed the border crossings and the ferry trip…thought they were much more gripping than the final showdown, which was a bit by-the-numbers. Decent, though, I quite enjoyed it.

  2. Tom June 1, 2016

    Oscar Isaac has got to be more compelling in this than he was in X-Men: Apocalypse. That was just one of the worst things I’ve seen from an actor who’s usually so damn great. I compare him, maybe a bit unfairly as it’s not quite as extreme a contrast from good-to-bad, with Eddie Redmayne’s collapse in Jupiter Ascending from last year.

    • Stu June 1, 2016

      Oh he is, but that’s not hard, is it?! He has some good scenes with Viggo Mortensen here, where they’re trying to get the measure of each other.

  3. Jordan Dodd June 2, 2016

    I really liked this movie, but this is really well written. I thought Oscar and Viggo played off each other really well, though I guess you could argue they weren’t at their best. I really liked the style of it all too, kinda retro like you said

    • Stu June 2, 2016

      I thought the scenes involving the two of them trying to get the measure of each other were the best in the film (the one in the restaurant and the one on the boat). I enjoyed it…doubt it’ll be one I remember years from now but good all the same.

      • Jordan Dodd June 2, 2016

        Yeah, not a memorable film but an enjoying watch. Plus I’ll watch Viggo in almost anything, and the same goes for Isaac, so to see the both of them play off each other was great for me. But yeah, I saw it ages ago and can’t remember much

  4. Cindy Bruchman June 2, 2016

    So I’m a sucker for the landscape of Greece and the Aegean Sea makes my senses swirl, so with that kind of emotional charge, and to it 3 fine actors, there was a lot to like. The script and the story line–very interesting. So why did the movie fall flat for me? Hard to believe, but the acting seemed lackluster. It wasn’t that they were bad, but I didn’t see a personal investment of the actors. Perhaps its the fault of the director for being unable to inspire. All I know is, anyone could have played those parts.

    • Stu June 2, 2016

      Hi Cindy – yeah I feel similar; I thought they were decent enough to carry it but it’s a shame there’s nothing special from any of the three. I wonder whether it was the director, or his screenplay, or the actors, or just how the characters were originally written by Highsmith. Hard to know unless you’re working on the entire shoot! I still enjoyed it, but perhaps there was a missed opportunity for something a little more interesting here.

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