London Film Festival 2011 Diary: Day 20

CARNAGE (Roman Polanski)

Working from Yasmina Reza’s acclaimed play, Roman Polanski has made his lightest and most purely enjoyable film for some time.

Carnage takes place entirely in a single apartment, belonging to Michael and Penelope Longstreet (John C Reilly and Jodie Foster), their guests are Alan and Nancy Cowan (Christoph Waltz and Kate Winslet), and it’s an awkward situation, because the two sets of parents are there to discuss how to deal the fact that the Cowan’s son recently hit the Longstreet’s son with a stick, knocking out two of his teeth. As the afternoon runs on the couples talk about this incident and many other things, revealing their vulnerabilities as people and couples.

Polanski has made films of plays (Death and the Maiden, a consistently underrated work) and films that feel like they could have been plays (Bitter Moon, Repulsion) before, and the experience is telling here, because despite the limitations, Carnage is quite a cinematic piece of work. As the atmosphere in the apartment becomes heavier, as people get drunk and angry, Polanski presses the camera ever inwards, making what is initially quite a spacious atmosphere fraught and claustrophobic. The piece never entirely sheds its theatrical origins (and the end of the corridor outside the Longstreet’s apartment does seem to be an enforced barrier, but it’s still an interesting film to look at as well as to listen to.

As with any filmed play though, this is really an actors piece, and what a treat it is in that respect. For the first hour of the film’s 79 minutes these four fine actors get to chew on some great, very funny, and very specific dialogue by Reza (who adapted her play with Polanski). It’s a particular treat to see Jodie Foster in a movie these days, let alone on such barnstorming form as she is here. I don’t think I’ve seen her this good since Contact. However, Christoph Waltz may just sneak the honours, as the disengaged parent who thinks this whole discussion is beneath him, and spends much of it on the phone with his office.

Sadly things slip badly in the last twenty minutes, as the characters get drunk, Reza’s dialogue loses its specificity and the film becomes little more than four people yelling at each other with a single voice. It’s a shame, but it can’t undermine the quality of what has gone before, nor the feeling that Polanski and Foster in particular seem truly invigorated here.

3.5 / 5

HUT IN THE WOODS (Hans Weingartner)

Hans Weingartner has taken his time in following up The Edukators, and though he’s not abandoned the social conscience of that film here (he is again dealing with the margins of society), Hut in the Woods is a very different feeling film.

As the film begins Martin (Peter Schneider) is being released from a spell in a mental institution. After failing to get back his job, Martin falls off the wagon, begins to drink and stops taking his medication. He also meets Viktor (Timur Massold), a young Ukranian immigrant living rough after his Mother’s overdose. Soon the two become friends and they build a hut together in the woods, where they live a relatively comfortable life. Martin also befriends Lena (Henrike von Kuick) and, sensing that she’s not happy, tries to encourage her to live, as he is, outside the system.

Hut in the Woods takes a bit of time to really get to what the main thrust of its story is (for me it’s a story very much about Lena, who only appears first more than an hour in), but even before that I was rather taken with it. The meandering first hour can be a touch slow, but it benefits from fine performances from Schneider and young Massold, as well as Weingartner’s unflashy direction, which allows the actors to quietly build a relationship we believe in, and which is really quite touching. It’s tough to talk about the second hour, because spoiling the various twists would be a crime, but suffice to say that there is more drive to it because of the shifting relationships that Martin has with the authorities, with Viktor and with Lena.

I like the fact that Weingartner doesn’t tie up things with a neat bow, and that there are many ways to read the ending, and the relationships. This is a well made and extremely well acted film which, I suspect, will mature and change on subsequent viewings, as it allows you to re-examine the relationships with foreknowledge of the third act. It also establishes Weingartner as an interesting and diverse talent.

3.5 / 5

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