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Two Faces of January, The

D: Hossein Amini / 96m

Cast: Viggo Mortensen, Kirsten Dunst, Oscar Isaac, David Warshofsky, Daisy Bevan, Omiros Poulakis

Athens, 1962. Rydal Keener is an American working as a tour guide. He meets an American couple on holiday there, Chester and Colette McFarland (Mortensen, Dunst). They invite him to dinner and he accepts, mainly because he’s attracted to Colette. Later, after dropping them off at their hotel, Rydal discovers Colette has left a bracelet behind in the taxi. He decides to return it. Meanwhile, the McFarland’s have another visitor, a private detective named Vittorio (Warshofsky). It transpires that Chester has defrauded several people in an investment scam, and it’s this money that is allowing the McFarlands to travel around Europe. Vittorio and Chester scuffle and the private detective is killed. As he attempts to get Vittorio back to his own room in the hotel, he’s discovered by Rydal. Chester convinces Rydal that the man is merely out cold from drinking too much, and together they get him into his room.

Chester convinces Rydal that he and Colette need to leave Athens as soon as possible, but their passports are being kept by the hotel. Seeing a way of scamming some money out of Chester, Rydal agrees to help them; it also gives him a chance to be nearer to Colette. He arranges for new passports to be given to them in Crete, where they all travel to next. Without identification papers they’re forced to wait on the quayside for the next day’s bus to Chania. While they are there, Colette visits Rydal in his room while Chester is sleeping. Back on the bus, Colette panics when she sees photos of her and Chester in a newspaper and thinks they’ve been spotted. At a rest stop, Colette gets off the bus and the two men chase after her. They walk on and eventually reach the ruins of Knossos.

Rain causes them to seek shelter in the ruins. Chester lures Rydal down into the lower levels and knocks him unconscious. When Colette realises what he’s done they argue and she falls to her death from some steps. Chester flees, leaving Rydal to come to the next morning and be seen by a group of schoolgirls and their teacher as he leaves. Rydal hurries to catch up with Chester, who has collected the new passports and is heading back to Athens on a ship. There is a confrontation between the two where each tries to outwit and out-threaten the other, but both come to realise that they are bound together by their actions over the past couple of days, and would find it easy to implicate the other if either informed the police. But when they get to Athens airport, Rydal finds that Chester has one more trick up his sleeve.

Two Faces of January, The -scene

Adapted from the novel by Patricia Highsmith, The Two Faces of January is a ponderous, though well acted drama that never quite gets off the ground, despite an intriguing storyline and some glorious location photography. As written and directed by Amini – something he’d been working on for around fifteen years – there is a distance between the audience and the main characters that stops them from ever becoming likeable or sympathetic. We never get to really know them either. Chester is a cheat but it’s just accepted that he’s a cheat; there’s no back story to explain why. Colette is aware of his duplicity and has obviously chosen to stay with him but we never find out why either. It’s confusing as well when their previous happiness is so quickly overturned by the arrival of Rydal in their lives: does she really love Chester or is she too a fraud? And Rydal’s past, with his father issues and need for independence, is also glossed over, with the questions, “Why Athens?” and “Why a tour guide?” completely unanswered.

There is one clear motivation that drives them all however: escape. But it’s clumsily used as a device to keep the narrative and the characters moving, and while Amini uses it to show how each is trying to escape themselves (and more so than the authorities), this is also clumsily done. What we’re left with as a result is a mini-travelogue where it seems that the characters are constantly outwitting each other – or appear to be – but in actuality aren’t doing anything of the sort. Chester imagines all sorts of deviousness in Rydal’s behaviour (and Isaac’s performance goes a long way to suggesting this, even though it’s not true), and he’s continually on his guard for some new twist. But ultimately he’s the author of his own downfall, and has no one to blame but himself for what happens.

Amini never reconciles Rydal’s willingness to keep in with the McFarlands, even after he knows what they’ve done, and while his attraction for Colette is an understandable reason in itself, there are moments where he’s making decisions about carrying on but we never find out what his reasons are. It ends up being a problem for the narrative when it just feels that if he didn’t, the plot (and the movie) would grind to a halt.

In adapting Highsmith’s novel, Amini has jettisoned the homo-erotic subplot between Chester and Rydal in favour of a more conventional love triangle approach, and in doing so he robs the movie of a potential, and valuable, source of tension. For otherwise, the movie plods along looking good but feeling empty, its characters relying heavily on plot contrivances such as Rydal just happening to know someone who can provide forged passports, and Colette getting so easily frightened and leaving the bus.

As Chester, Mortensen puts in a good performance but even he can’t reconcile the character’s initial fearfulness and vulnerability with the more callous character he becomes. Dunst has a couple of emotional scenes that show off her skills as an actress, but again she can’t reconcile Colette’s initial happiness with her husband with the antipathy she shows toward him once they leave Athens (she already knows they’re on the run, why should this make her feel any different? And this is before she learns of Vittorio’s death). Rounding off the trio, Isaac portrays Rydal as a conspiring victim, unsure of himself as he gets in deeper and looking for a way out, even though he can’t see one. It’s a confident performance, not as conflicted as Mortensen and Dunst’s, but unfortunately, still a little shy of being satisfactory.

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With the scenery providing a welcome (and thankful) distraction from the unwieldy and undercooked melodramatics, the movie adds a particularly awkward scene at a customs hall where Chester and Rydal act so suspiciously it’s a wonder they aren’t picked out of their respective queues sooner. And the denouement, included to add some much needed excitement, is so poorly edited that any sense of vitality is diminished quite rapidly. There’s a great movie to be had from Highsmith’s novel, but alas, this isn’t it, and for that, Amini is the only one to blame.

Rating: 5/10 – with its cast unable to elevate the material or make up for Amini’s lack of directorial control, The Two Faces of January fails to provide any tension or mystery; plodding, and with a weak resolution, the movie looks great throughout but offers little that’s arresting to occupy the viewer’s time.