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For Your Consideration: 'The Two Faces of January'

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The Two Faces of January, directed by Hossein Amini, V. Mortensen, K. Dunst

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P. Highsmith, The Two Faces of January
As a screenwriter, Hossein Amini has had some success adapting the novels of classic authors: Henry James (The Wings of the Dove), Thomas Hardy (Jude), Elmore Leonard (Killshot), and -- coming up -- John Le Carré (Our Kind of Traitor). For his first feature as a director, The Two Faces of January, Amini turned to the always rewarding Patricia Highsmith, working from his own screenplay. Anthony Minghella's smart, seductive film adaptation of The Talented Mr. Ripley got me onto Highsmith's books, a predilection only encouraged by critics like Michael Dirda and Susannah Clapp, as well as a fine biography by Joan Schenkar. As it turns out, Amini's screenplay breaks away from Highsmith's novel, published in 1964, quite significantly somewhere after the story's midpoint, but the film is still a promising debut with some stylish performances from his three leads.

Viggo Mortensen (A Dangerous Method) and Kirsten Dunst (Melancholia) are Chester and Colette MacFarland, an older American man and his young, beautiful wife who are visiting Athens. They are taken up by a young American tour guide named Rydal, a cultural refugee with too much education for his own good, played with soft-toned charm by Oscar Isaac, the star of the Coen brothers' excellent Inside Llewyn Davis, a top-notch film that got embarrassingly short shrift from the Academy Awards this year. (You might not recognize him without the beard.) Because this is a Highsmith story, we know better than to trust any member of this troubled trio, and soon enough history catches up with them. A web of lies and guilt slowly tightens, and while this is not exactly a suspense-filled movie, impressively few of the twists are easily foreseen. Far be it from me to spoil any of them.

Other Reviews:

New York Times | The New Yorker | Washington Post
Christian Science Monitor | Los Angeles Times

Cinematographer Marcel Zyskind (Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story) offers plenty of eye candy while recreating 1960s Athens. When the story shifts to the island of Crete, there are many beauty shots of its rocky landscape, the Minoan ruins at Knossos, and even the famous Bull-Leaping Fresco there. Amini's screenplay takes a turn toward the more exotic backdrop of Istanbul, one of the divergences from Highsmith's novel, but the dialogue and acting preserve the chilly atmosphere of Highsmith's work, full of ambiguity and deep psychological motivation. When Rydal first sees Chester, he is reminded of his own father, who has recently died and with whom he has, to say the least, a complicated relationship. The echoes of the story of Oedipus, never named, resonate throughout the film.

This film opens today at the Bethesda Row Cinema.

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