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Review: The Two Faces of January

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The Two Faces of January represents the latest venture for a genre that has lost its way in recent years – the noir thriller. With so few stand out choices – only the 2013’s near-horror-noir Prisoners (chock full of Hollywood stars but largely un-publicised so it didn’t catch the public’s attention) and the neo-noir Brick, now coming on for ten years old – being really worth a watch.

Of course, The Talented Mr Ripley was one of the best modern noirs we have seen.The Two Faces of January is also based on a Patricia Highsmith novel, just like it’s Italian-set predecessor. However, an unusual title and a good cast are not enough to render the film in the same league as Ripley.

Modern film-goers are a savvier bunch than twenty years ago, constantly demanding more for their increasingly stretched buck, and one of the high points of January is how it evokes a bygone age and setting – proving that films made in 2014 aren’t all futuristic robot romps about escaping the planet. I was able to watch the film and view a showcase of the stars’ costumes, photos of which appear here. Yep, Kirsten Dunst wore those lovely frocks and Aragorn himself enjoyed a nice DJ during filming.

The film

Set in late 60’s Greece (Athens and Crete), the film charts the relationship between ingenue Colette (Kirsten Dunst), her wealthy older husband Chester (Viggo Mortensen) and attractive American guide Rydal (Oscar Isaac) whom they meet at the Acropolis. Events happen that bind the three together and send them on the run, as they all reveal more about their true selves in the dusty Cretian setting.

The cast work well together as a trio – and make this retelling a tight, dark noir set in brilliant sunshine, with director Hossein Amini ably blending stifling heat with impending doom.

Although Colette and Chester are revealed to be more than they initially seem, it’s not very hard to work out most of the twists in this tale. The dialogue is not as inspiring as it should be, and certain events happen on the flick of a dime, not leaving the audience much time to reel from the repercussions. It is Isaac’s Rydal who holds it all together, revealing less than anyone throughout, which makes for a character to root for, but also led to my annoyance come the film’s rapid denouement. I am looking forward to seeing what roles he chooses next.

Mortensen showed his skill in portraying the greasy and morally corrupt in Eastern Promises and A History of Violence, so he easily fits in here as sleazy conman Chester. As is usual in period adaptations, it is the female characters who are less rounded and Dunst does what she can with a role, but didn’t garner much sympathy from me – although she is the picture of elegance in the array of period outfits, she deserves more than window-dressing.

Possibly I was spoiled by The Talented Mr Ripley, so I recommend viewers dim their memories in order to enjoy the same kind of detective work. In the end, the film was watchable from an aesthetic perspective, but it seemed that plot development and genuine threat was curtailed in order to concentrate on creating a beautiful look and feel.

Well set, well-played, but no patch on a seminal masterpiece, The Two Faces of January is unlikely to jump-start a new period of noir, but those enraptured by setting and nostalgia will find it a satisfying watch.

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