Stylish adaptation of a Patricia Highsmith thriller: in 1962 Athens, a rich American couple meet a young American tour guide and the three get drawn deeper and deeper into a dangerous relationship of mutual dependence.
The Two Faces of January
Purple Noon by Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
What’s not to like about a well-written, well-made, well acted classic suspense story that has the bonus of being filmed in beautiful, evocative locations? It’s 1962, and the period is created convincingly and seductively. On the steps of the Acropolis, a glossy, typically American tourist couple seem to be sightseeing and enjoying a care-free holiday. Chester (Viggo Mortensen) and Colette (Kirsten Dunst) MacFarland are well-dressed and look rich. Yet they are not what they seem – they radiate something which catches the attention of Rydal (excellently ambiguous Oscar Isaac, Inside Llewyn Davis), a drop-out from an American academic family. He’s dark enough to be mistaken for a local, and speaks Greek fluently, but is, in fact, scraping a living as an unofficial tour guide, a small-time con artist short-changing his young American girl admirers.
These characters recognise something in each other, and the MacFarlands deliberately draw Rydal into their lives. Both seem to think they can gain some advantage from each other. But when a private detective turns up at the MacFarlands’ grand hotel, it’s revealed that Chester, far from being ‘old money’, is a major fraudster on the run from big American investors. Chester is a volatile personality and he kills the detective unintentionally – he claims – in a struggle. When Rydal arrives coincidentally, just as Chester is trying to move the body into another room, Chester enlists his help, claiming the man is drunk. Rydal doesn’t realise until later that the man is dead. But the unwitting assistance he gives links him to Chester from then on, and he gets innocently drawn into an accelerating spiral of events. The couple turn to him for help. He offers to arrange false passports for them – he happens to know someone – and to accompany them to Crete, to help them hide out for five days until the passports are ready and they can flee the country.
At first, it seems that the couple were Rydal’s victims, conned for their money, then that Rydal is their fall guy, implicated by them in their much larger crimes that he’s not yet aware of. But we are constantly wrong-footed as we observe the push-pull effect of Chester and Rydal’s relationship, never being sure who is pushing and who is pulling, as bit by bit, information is revealed. The relationship is complicated by the fact that Rydal and Colette, who is younger than Chester, are attracted to each other, making Chester jealous but unable to do anything about it while they rely on Rydal.
Rydal finds himself on the run with them for their crimes and Chester and Rydal realise they have become inextricably linked together in guilt. The balance between them gradually changes, as Chester seems to disintegrate and Rydal seems to become the moral heart of the film – yet we are always unsure right to the end whether this is, in fact, actually how it appears. There are doubt and secrets everywhere, everything is open to more than one interpretation. Very like, in fact, the myth associated with the Roman god Janus, who faced both backwards and forwards, presiding over the beginning and the ending of the year, and gave his name to the month of January.
An extra layer weaves Greek myths in and out with the modern story line. Rydal had ambivalent feelings towards his own father, who recently died. An implicit father/son relationship develops between Rydal and Chester, a similarly fallible father to his own, explicitly connected in the film with the myth of Theseus returning to his father Aegeus. On Crete, the labyrinth of the Minotaur at Knossos is the setting both for similar tragic events as people wander within its maze in the dark, and for the unravelling of the final strands of the plot. Along the way there are multiple twists, turns and suspenseful set-ups that constantly surprise. It’s a bumpy ride – however, screenwriter Hossein Amini’s directing debut is assured and smooth, and the result is classy, compelling, intelligent film noir with a contemporary feel that keeps us guessing to the end. Interestingly, for students of Highsmith, the themes of unwilling mutual interdependence in crime in both The Talented Mr Ripley and Strangers On A Train recur in The Two Faces of January.
The Two Faces Of January is released on 16th May 2014 in the UK