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Reviews in Retrospect: The Two Faces of January

An exploration of appearances, deception and identity in the lush setting of 1960s Greece.

The Two Faces of January film still

Hossein Amini's impressive debut, an adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s 1964 novel, is as stylish as it is intriguing and clearly a labour of love for the director.

The narrative of two men’s lives becoming entangled, a familiar Highsmith theme, has at its heart the search for a father. An early allusion to the story of Theseus references the complicated father-son relationship that develops between the two main protagonists, Chester (Viggo Mortensen) and Rydal (Oscar Isaacs). Set primarily in Athens, the tale has more than a flavour of Greek tragedy about it, as Chester’s vulnerability is ultimately what leads to his demise.

Opening scenes at the Parthenon show Chester telling his young trophy wife Colette (Kirsten Dunst) that the edifice, though apparently absolutely straight, is actually crooked. This, followed by his comment that, “The Greeks were masters of deception,” put us firmly in the frame of the film’s concerns.

The title refers to the two-faced god Janus. This duality of presence is manifest in the three main characters, a symptom of Highsmith's preoccupation with polarities of personality and the nature of morality.

The hedonism of 1960s Europe is convincingly captured by Marcel Zyskind’s lush cinematography and the peerless Mortensen makes smoking look sexy again. Chester is a swindler and a con man. Colette is a more substantial character in the film than in the novel. This is in part due to intelligent acting from Dunst, but also Amini’s intention to make her a more worthy part of a love triangle than Highsmith’s rather vapid rendition of her.

Jealousy between the men centred on Dunst’s character is interwoven with the back story of their relationships with their fathers. To what extent Chester becomes that father figure for Rydal is the intrigue here, at least as much as whether the authorities will run their criminal activity to ground.

As the law catches up with the two fugitives at passport control, they follow through with the pretence that they are actually father and son. The universal theme of children’s disappointment with parents is movingly played out in the last few scenes.

Despite Highsmith’s characteristic cynicism, she does not judge her characters and invites us to share this non-judgemental view. There is a tragic resolution as the men ultimately discover loyalty, forgiveness and possible redemption. Played by the gods, they are most heroic in their defeat.

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