By Simon Miraudo
June 12, 2014
The Two Faces of January, based on Patricia Highsmith’s 1964 novel and set in 1962, comes from an era in which espionage thrillers needed only an enigmatic man in a linen suit to arouse suspicion. That might still be a recipe for dramatic tension in 2014. Just not this particular man, and not this particular linen suit. Viggo Mortensen is a fine actor, and screenwriter Hossein Amini (making his directorial debut) has some fine films in his pocket, but their adaptation makes Highsmith’s text seem like some disposable airport novel, or even a bus-stop novel. That’s how fast it doesn’t go.
A clean-shaven Oscar Isaac (this was shot in 2012) plays Rydal, an American tour guide in Greece who makes sport of bedding and fleecing the lovely female tourists and just plain fleecing the rest. He spots the refined Chester and Colette MacFarland (Mortensen and Kirsten Dunst) in the Parthenon, first drawn to Chester, a stunning dead ringer for his dead father, and then Colette, just a stunner. They take him on as a personal guide, asking for his help in the marketplace. Chester then makes another request late in the evening: can Rydal help him move the body of this private investigator he’s just killed? The consequences are massive, but imagine the tip.
The rest of the feature concerns Rydal securing passports for the MacFarlands, who, as he discovers, are not all they initially claimed to be. Unfortunately, fake passports turn out to be easier to come by than thrills, and even at a lean 97 minutes, the movie couldn’t keep me from checking my watch. A final foot chase – like much before it – attempts to recall classics like The Third Man, yet is successful only in the way that Mortensen’s speed is as dubious as Orson Welles‘.
Highsmith was previously responsible for penning The Talented Mr. Ripley, so I have no doubt that the source material – poorly titled as it may be – is actually of sterling quality. And you’d have to be actively working against beautiful stars like Isaac, Dunst and Mortensen – especially when shot against the beautiful backdrops of Athens and Crete – to make them look bad. However, looking good should be a symptom of success, not the only ingredient. The plot never quite percolates to satisfying effect, and the especially silly ending must have only have seemed reasonable on set because everyone was suffering from heatstroke.
The Two Faces of January plays the Sydney Film Festival June 12, and 14, 2014. It arrives in Australian cinemas June 19.