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20/20 Filmsight - Film Criticism by David O'Connell

Film Criticism by David O'Connell

The Comfort of Strangers

May 8th 2012 04:19

A film with great pedigree that intrigues, tantalises and eventually deflates with its shock ending, Paul Schrader’s The Comfort of Strangers (1990) is still a curiosity worth revisiting despite some glaring, potentially fatal flaws. Adapted by Harold Pinter from the slim novella by Ian McEwan, the film, made in 1990, is a mildly unnerving translation of the source material but not an entirely successful one.

A couple, Colin (Rupert Everitt) and Mary (Natasha Richardson), are holidaying in Venice for a second time, though neither appears particularly enthused about being there. They’ve left Mary’s two children back in England, a fact that seems to irk Mary whilst leaving Colin remotely apathetic. Their lazy, hesitant perusal of the city is undercut by a mostly unspoken malaise. We later learn they’ve returned, chiefly, to confront a truth about their union; to revisit to a place of fond memories to hopefully hold a mirror up to a happier past and recover its meaningfulness.

Like many other tourists in Venice they fall prey to the maze of alleys that distinguish the city's unique, abstract design. Fortunately they encounter a helpful stranger, Robert (Christopher Walken), who guides them to his café/bar and regales them with stiff recollections of his colourful past. He intercepts them again the next day after a torrid night spent sleeping on the street for want of a route back to their hotel. Robert insists on making recompense and invites the couple to his home where they meet housebound wife Caroline (Helen Mirren). Each has a story to relay, but in snippets, and with oblique motivations attached. Is it chance that has brought these couples together or is it because of a sinister, deliberate manipulation?

Though I’m an ardent Walken fan, his performance is the film’s major sticking point. His stilted delivery detracts from any naturalistic effect; yes, there is reasoning behind the off-putting delivery of a repeated monologue, for example, but it receives a payoff late in proceedings in the way Robert’s sublimated, though far from profound, dysfunctionality surfaces. When juxtaposed against the already timid performance of Richardson however, a tinge of unreality resolves Pinter’s narrative reconstruction into a blighted smear. Mirren too feels miscast and nothing like McEwan’s version of Caroline. Her false (supposedly Canadian) accent notwithstanding, the lack of psychological depth and motivation of her character helps render the conclusion one without depth.

And what of the denouement? Upon arrival, it confounds and contorts far more than it illuminates. This painterly twist dipped in deepest red feels like a calculated taunt, a need to draw ire from audiences with a grand sweeping summation of the dark undertones and perversions that have fatefully converged with the poor couple’s lives.

Yet despite its shortcomings and the generally languid direction by Schrader, The Comfort of Strangers remains a strangely compelling drama. Angelo Badalamenti’s score is a lush one with flavourful melodies that seem to reverberate from within the concentration on the city’s more Arabic/Middle Eastern architecture (including Robert and Caroline’s palatial apartment). Then there’s the composer’s glorious main theme and ‘Preludium’ piece which seems to musically foreshadow the operatic grandeur of the film’s devilish final twist of the knife.

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