Watch The Two Faces of January and you can imagine that your summer holiday has already started, as you walk among the sun-baked ruins of Ancient Greece, languish on a ferry to the Greek islands and sip ouzo in a romantic taverna on the harbour front. And if you’re rich and beautiful like Americans Chester and his younger wife Colette, played by Viggo Mortensen and Kirsten Dunst , you’ll be wearing immaculate cream, oatmeal and pale lemon linens, designer sunglasses and panama hats as you stroll amongst the ancient temples of Athens and Knossos.
Hossein Amini (writer of Drive and The Four Feathers ) creates beautifully shot backdrops in his directorial debut, but as you would expect from a film based on a Patricia Highsmith novel (it’s been compared to The Talented Mr Ripley), appearances are deceptive. The ruins are a metaphor for the life of Chester, and Mortensen manages to convey magnificently a combination of elegance, cool and an unhinged menace. When hapless young American tour guide Rydal, played by Oscar Isaac (who most recently starred in leading role of the Cohen brother’s Inside Llewyn Davis) stumbles across Chester moving the body of an apparently unconscious man, it’s a case of small time thief meets a swindler of investment banker proportions. Rydal, captivated by Colette, becomes entwined in the fallout from Chester’s deceptions and follows the couple and their suitcase of cash onto the boat to Crete.
The melodramatic score by Alberto Iglesias accentuates the disturbing undertones as jealousies, intrigues and tensions drive the plot through a series of disasters. The central relationship of the film is between the two men. It’s not clear who knows what, who’s telling the truth or what their motives are, as the film moves between psychological drama and action thriller with an old-fashioned style and pace that’s been compared to Hitchcock films.
Dunst looks lovely, but her character is largely underused, an opportunity missed, perhaps, to crank up the suspense further. A beautiful and entrancing film nevertheless.