Film Review - The Two Faces of January

Hossein Amini’s directorial debut, The Two Faces of January (2014), based on Patricia Highsmith’s novel, is an atmospheric thriller set in Greece and Turkey during the early 1960s. Chester Macfarland (Viggo Mortensen) and his glamourous wife Collette, (Kirsten Dunst) are holidaying in Athens when they run into Rydal (Oscar Isaac), a young, Greek-speaking American working as a tour guide.

Rydal, we discover, likes to con clients unsure of the lingo or local currency. He doesn’t even draw the line at short-changing his date Lauren (Daisy Bevan), an American tourist. But Rydal finds he’s met his match when he becomes entangled in Chester’s shady affairs. Chester is on the run after making a fortune selling fake shares in the US. Things come to a head when he is tracked down by a private detective who demands payment at gun point. Rydal agrees to help the couple flee their luxury hotel and arranges for them to purchase forged passports. They decide to wait out the time it will take to prepare their documents in Crete.

Better known as the screenwriter of The Wings of The Dove and Drive, Amini proves his skills behind the camera in The Two Faces of January. It’s beautifully shot and Amini exploits his locations to the full – key scenes takes place at the Acropolis and the Cretan site of Knossos while the denouement is played out in the winding back-alleys of Istanbul. There is also careful attention to detail from Collette’s figure hugging dresses and the timeless appearance of the Greek tavernas to the endless cigarette smoking and consumption of Ouzo. The Macfarlands’ cream suits perfectly complement the Grecian columns.

The best scenes in the film involve the shifting affinities between the three main characters. Amini is adept at drawing out the tension between the two men as they compete for the notice and affections of Collette. Rydal is evidently attracted to Collette but keeps us guessing at to whether it money or loves that he really wants. Although this ambivalence works well to build suspense, Rydal’s motivations for helping the couple, at risk to his own freedom, are rather less credible.

As the title suggests, The Two Faces of January explores notions of duplicity and double identities. January is names after Janus, the god of transitions, beginnings and endings, and is often portrayed with two faces, one looking to the future and the other to the past. The tension so carefully built up in the film’s first half falters, however, when the two men are reduced to playing a game of cat and mouse with one another and it becomes fairly predictable how things will end.

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