Friday, 20 July 2012

Movie review: Carnage, dir Roman Polanski (2011)

Kate Winslet playing Nancy Cowan picks up the
contents of her handbag, which Jodie Foster,
playing Penelope Longstreet, has just
thrown across the room.
This fabulous ensemble piece resembles nothing more than a cross between Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf - the 1962 Edward Albee play that has become a classic of the stage and screen - and The Slap - Christos Tsiolkas' 2008 novel - which was made into a TV series in 2011. As in Woolf, Carnage is tied to a cast of four people, in this case a pair of married couples, and as in The Slap the spur to the action is an altercation involving children. In this case Zachary Cowan hits Ethan Longstreet in the mouth with a stick, breaking a tooth and causing bruising. So Alan (Christoph Waltz) and Nancy Cowan (Kate Winslet) visit the apartment of Ethan's parents, Penelope (Jodie Foster) and Michael Longstreet (John C. Reilly) to discuss the matter and achieve some sort of resolution.

They do discuss it but they do not resolve it. We are the richer for their failure. There are several notable dramatic devices used to progress the story, one of which is Nancy's vomiting over the coffee table. The other major device is Alan's constantly taking phone calls on his Blackberry. Alan is in PR and is tied up with a damaging story in a major newspaper about the drug that is a product made by a client he represents. Everyone is annoyed with the repeated telephonic interruptions from Alan's colleague Walter. Michael, meanwhile, takes several phone calls from his elderly mother.

But it is the dialogue between the four that mainly pushes the narrative forward. On several occasions Alan and Nancy look set to leave the Longstreet's apartment but discussion and an (initial) desire to solve the problem created by the children's argument bring them back inside. Eventually another dramatic device - the scotch whisky - is produced, with Alan and Michael initially partaking. Any thought of leaving the room is abandoned when Penelope and Nancy decide that they should have some fun as well, and take a drink themselves. There are quickly four drunk adults in the living room, each with an axe to grind and grievances - against the other couple, and against their respective spouses - to air.

There are no stand-out performances in this movie because each actor acquits his or her role with great mastery, led in the drama by the brilliant director Polanski. Jodie Foster's wet-liberal-writer-and-art-lover Penelope Longstreet and Christoph Waltz's hard-nosed-uptown-player Alan Cowan really do produce sparks when they clash. John C. Reilly's middle-brow-plumbing-supplies-retailer Michael Longstreet and Kate Winslet's glamorous-professional-working-mum Nancy Cowan are truly fine also as they try to both manage their disputatious partners and present their own points of view within the broader set of arguments about parenthood, wedlock, politics, culture, and work.

I suspect that this truly fine movie will be rediscovered at some point and held up as an example of how a lot of action can be achieved with very few props and cinematic devices. Of course, coming from Polanski, we really should expect nothing less than pure perfection from it.

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