The Two Faces of January is the directorial debut of British-Iranian screenwriter Hossein Amini (screenwriter of Jude (1996), The Wings of the Dove (1997) and Drive (2011)) and the latest Patricia Highsmith adaptation after Strangers on a Train (1951), Plein Soleil (1960), The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999), and Ripley’s Game (2002). Essentially a film noir set in the Mediterranean sunshine, it has been Hossein Amini’s long time ambition to get this film made after he read the book – one of Highsmith lesser known works from 1964 – during his university days over 15 years ago.
The film is set in Greece in the early 1960s when holidaying abroad was still something preserved for the happy few and it tells us the story of the suave, well-heeled, American couple Chester MacFarland (Viggo Mortensen) and his alluring younger wife Colette (Kirsten Dunst). On a day out to visit the Parthenon they bump into the locally based American tour guide Rydal Keener (Oscar Isaac), who forces himself onto the couple and, being the schemer he is, sees an opportunity to make a quick buck from what he believes will be an easy target. However, things are not quite what they appear to be and the outwardly respectable Chester turns out to be on the run after having embezzled investors back in the U.S. and living the high life with their money in Europe. When a private detective unexpectedly tracks them down and shows up in their hotel one evening, things get out of hand and Rydal inadvertently becomes involved and his and Chester’s fates are entwined from then on. It’s a bit like The Talented Mr. Ripley in that two men from different and almost opposing backgrounds forge a potentially catastrophic alliance. The story explores the shifting dynamics amongst the three of them whilst they are on the run from the authorities: Rydal being impressed by Chester’s resemblance to his late father and Chester suspecting that Rydal is paying a little too much attention to his wife Colette. Her role is very much underwritten and she could have contributed so much more to the build-up of tensions between Chester and Rydal. As it is however, she is not much more than Chester’s elegant and smiling wife which is a real shame as the Hitchcockian elegance which this film encapsulates almost requires that strong, central, female part. Admittedly though, women tend to be more background characters in Patricia Highsmith’s books (with the exception of The Price of Salt, first published in 1952 and written under the pseudonym of Claire Morgan, the film adaption of which is in post production under the title ‘Carol‘, starring Cate Blanchett and Mia Wasikowska) but Kirsten Dunst could have given the part of Colette that extra dimension had the script allowed her to. Visually, the film is an absolute treat through the beautiful photography of Danish cinematographer Marcel Zyskind with that typical golden Mediterranean haze, the impeccable costume design and supported by a beautiful film score by Alberto Iglesias.
There is a lot of good to say about this film: it oozes an almost old-fashioned cinema and is abundant in its elegance and style with that early 1960’s look to it (almost enhanced by Chester’s excessive smoking) but in my opinion it falls a little short in the level of suspense you would expect from this kind of film. Admittedly, there is one tense scene when Chester and Rydal try to get through customs but all in all it does not really get you on the edge of your seat and almost gently floats on. The end of the film is not the natural climax one would have expected after what is a gradual built-up of the tension and is almost a bit disappointing, the more so as the film’s dramatic and accomplished score heightens expectations. In terms of acting Viggo Mortensen’s performance stands out in the way he portrays Chester, the suave, sophisticated financier from New York, impeccably dressed in his linen summer suits (which surprisingly don’t seem to suffer one bit from the challenging dusty heat to which they are exposed) who ends up in psychological free fall, showing his ugly and amoral side and eventually ending up a broken man. As a directorial debut Amini could not have wished for more: a good story, a great cast and a mesmerising cinematography and score.
Two Faces of January was released in UK cinemas on 16 May 2014
Directed by: Hossein Amini
Written by: Hossein Amini
Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Kirsten Dunst, Oscar Isaac
Running time: 97 min