Movie Reviews

'The Two Faces of January': A holiday goes haywire

By David LeeMovies - 12 September 2014 10:00 AM | Updated 1:06 PM

'The Two Faces of January': A holiday goes haywire

The Two Faces of January

Our Rating

4/5 Stars

The year is 1962. A glamorous American couple, the charismatic and cash rich Chester MacFarland (Viggo Mortensen) and his alluring younger wife Colette (Kirsten Dunst), arrive in Athens by boat via the Corinthian Canal. While sightseeing at the Acropolis they encounter Rydal (Oscar Isaac), a young, Greek-speaking American graduate who is working as a tour guide, scamming tourists on the side as a small time con-artiste.

Drawn to Colette’s beauty and impressed by Chester’s wealth and sophistication, who also reminds him of his recently deceased father, Rydal became friendly with them and accepts an invitation to dinner. However, Chester’s successful appearance hides much darker secrets from the past.

Soon, this past catches up with him. He and his wife need to go on the run, and they get Rydal to help them with their escape. They embark on an arduous road trip across the Mediterranean, during which tension begins to mount between the trio. Chester becomes increasingly filled with rage, suspicion and jealousy of Colette’s fondness for the younger Rydal, while Colette has grew fearful and paranoid of the law eventually catching up with them. 

Beautifully filmed against sun-drenched locations in Athens, Crete and Istanbul, the film is based on a novel by Patricia Highsmith, who has had other novels turned into films –  ‘Strangers on the Train’ (another Hitchcock classic) and ‘The Talented Mir Ripley’ (turned into a successful film by Anthony Minghella). Its suspense evokes much of Hitchcock, and the final climatic chase scene along the dark alleyways and streets of Istanbul also contains more than a nod to Carol Reed’s post-war noir classics such as ‘Odd Man Out’ (1947) and ‘The Third Man’ (1949). 

The gritty realism of ‘Two Faces’ enhances the internal psychological drama and conflict between the characters, advancing the story with a solid plot and convincing events. Though this resulted in a slow setup and overall pace, with only flashes of action and thrills, which might not sit so well with the young and impatient modern viewer.

Compelling acting from Aaragon, Mary Jane and Llewyn Davis

Director Hossein Ami, who is known for his screenplays for ‘Drive’ and ‘Wings of the Dove’, makes his film debut here. He did well to assemble a strong cast of actors – Viggo Mortensen (‘The Lord of the Rings’, ‘A History of Violence’), Kirsten Dunst (‘Spiderman’, ‘Melancholia’), and Oscar Issac (‘Inside llewyn Davis’). 

The central actors are compelling and highly accomplished, portraying their characters with psychological depth and ambiguity. Issac, who used to play supporting roles albeit in notable films like ‘Agora’, ‘Robin Hood’ and ‘Sucker Punch’, but who has been catapulted to leading man status since playing the title role in ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’, holds his own on screen against heavyweight Mortensen.   

Dunst steps out of the shadow of teen movies and blockbuster love interests with a beguiling performance in the role of Colette.

But it is Mortensen who is the emotional engine as his volatile character MacFarland drives the plot forward and embraces all of his flaws and humanity, laying them bare for the audience to great emotional effect. This is probably one of Mortensen’s best performances and it is a pity the film has yet to be recognised with any accolades, despite premiering at the Berlinale earlier this year.

A revival of Patricia Highsmith novels adapted into films

In case you are wondering how the title ‘The Two Faces of January’ came about – ‘January’ refers to Janus, the Roman god of transitions, beginnings and endings, and as such is usually portrayed with two faces, one looking to the future and the other to the past. This is especially befitting of the central characters of the original novel by Patricia Highsmith.

Her stories are usually dark and morally ambiguous, filled with criminals who tend to get away with their horrific deeds, and often containing characters with homo-erotic undertones. Most enticing of all will be Highsmith's 1950s lesbian romance ‘Carol’, which is currently being made into a film by Todd Haynes (‘Far From Heaven’), starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara. With that and ‘Two Faces’, she seems to be enjoying a mini revival of sorts. 

Amidst the loud onslaught of summer blockbusters and comic book adaptations, films of Highsmith’s novels will please more sophisticated adult audiences. 

‘The Two Faces of January’ is now showing in cinemas

Movie Photos

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  • The Two Faces Of January 2014
  • The Two Faces Of January 2014
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  • The Two Faces Of January 2014
  • The Two Faces Of January 2014
  • The Two Faces Of January 2014
  • The Two Faces Of January 2014
  • The Two Faces Of January 2014
  • The Two Faces Of January 2014
  • The Two Faces Of January 2014
  • The Two Faces Of January 2014
  • The Two Faces Of January 2014
  • The Two Faces Of January 2014
  • The Two Faces Of January 2014
  • The Two Faces Of January 2014
  • The Two Faces Of January 2014
The Two Faces Of January