Closer : Movie Review

5 stars out of 5 (Masterpiece)

Director : Mike Nichols 

Writer : Patrick Marber 

English, 2004


"Two disciples were returning to their ashram,and were about to ford a river when they heard a request for help. A beautiful young woman drew near and asked whether she could get help in crossing the river which was too deep and swift for her to wade through. One of the disciples hesitated while the other agreed and carried her across the waters. On arriving at the other bank, she thanked them and continued on her way. As the two disciples were reaching the ashram, one broke the silence and asked his companion reprovingly "How could you agree to help her like that? It is forbidden for us to make such kind of contact". To which the other replied "My dear friend, I only carried her across the river but you have carried her in your mind till here".

Mike Nichols is a specialist in creating cinematic showcases for the raging rancour in man-woman relationships. Right from "Who’s afraid of Virginia Wolf ?"(1966) and even briefly in a terror-themed movie like "Wolf" (’94),he is drawn to explore this strife-’n’-friction . Closer ,set in modern-day London, charts the emotional and sexual merry-go-round of four young protagonists- all played with panache by Clive Owen,Julia Roberts,Natalie Portmann and Jude Law. The dialogue, reprised by Patrick Marber from his award-winning play, has a mean sparkle - it is the knife which rips and splices together this bloody good story.

This story has no shame in depicting what it wants to- as befits a dissection, a sardonic glossy autopsy. Larry (Clive Owen) is a dermatologist with a tough hide,who identifies himself as a "clinical observer of the human carnival".He’s bought his own two-level modernistic home in London and is all set for the good life.Courtesy a racy pornographic internet chat ,typed with hilarious flair and set to a racing orchestra in the background, Larry is tricked by Dan into meeting Anna. The encounter proves fortuitous for Larry as he come to regard and possess Anna as his partner for good. He is not averse to committing a serious moral transgression, and owns up to it with a half-smiling,partly ashamed ,fully honest face. But when he realizes that the tables are turned against him, he erupts into a bullying volcano. Clive Owen superby embodies Larry who becomes the smiling, snarling, brutally vengeful tiger of this story. On an early occasion when the rug is pulled out from beneath his feet ,and on another when his lady is being propositioned by her ex-flame,he wears a look of benign amusement and reacts in good humour. But when things heat up and his mating territory is squarely trespassed,Larry lashes out mercilessly. It does not matter to him whether its his loved lone or someone else who’s in the firing line. He’s man enough to do exactly what he wants, but not man enough to forgive "outsiders". One of the many examples of Larry’s supreme self-confidence is seen in a scene where Anna says "You’re wonderful!" and his quick soft reply is " Don’t ever forget that !"

Anna , whose role is played with delicate elegance by Julia Roberts , is both a casualty and survivor of this story. She is soft spoken, a lady capable of giving full emotional reciprocation and an artiste who lands art exhibitions for her photographic portraits. On one instance when Larry is preening ,she gently retorts" You seem more like the cat that got the cream, you can stop licking yourself"-this is the most aggressive her words ever become. Later,when she is the object of far more vile and humiliating treatment, she does not find the trenchancy of heart to wage a verbal counter-fire. In her professional career ,she seems to have the talent and discipline for success, but her personal life is scarred by the weakness, anger and conceit of those who desire her. She eventually comes across as a talented,attractive woman of cool (not cold) demeanour, who needs the anchor of a strong-hearted partner to make it through.

Dan ,an assistant writer of obituaries in newspapers, comes across right from the start as articulate sensitive and intelligent. He wants a fresh start to his previous relationship with Anna, never mind the fact that she’s moved ahead and married Larry. He has no qualms either of starting a relationship with another woman- Alice. Dan doesn’t draw the line between a sacrifice for stability and the lure of a new relationship; between a steady forward gaze and the nagging urge to rake up the past. And he ends up paying a ruinous price for this blissfully careless greed... After the bruising rounds of the block he takes here, one hopes that he will develop that extra sinew of heart that fully makes a man. It is easy to overlook how adeptly Jude Law essays Dan’s pusillanimity.

Natalie Portmann brilliantly captures all the anguish and coquettish flair of Alice- a beautiful young woman who hails from a nihilistic past. Her background may very well have cast a permanent miasma over how she sees and reacts to people in personal life. And it becomes her misfortune to be courted by Dan at that juncture in his life. She appears a straightforward person, but when Anna states this,Larry corrects her ,suggesting that Alice may be putting on an act. Alice laments and beseeches grievously when her trust is betrayed but moves on soon to play the shamelessly wicked seductress. She remains one of the more inscrutable characters in this transcontinental "La Ronde". It is her that Mike Nicols selects to be the cynosure of the brilliantly photographed,beautifully scored ending sequence of the story. It is an inspired finish to this movie- one wonders whether she emerges more disillusioned or if she still nurtures a sliver of optimism.

There’s a pattern in this movie- a moment of kindness occurs,a brief spell of emotional warmth, only to be burned by a succeding spew of hatred. These waves of recrimination and venom that flood the story would have made for a very heavy-headed ,tough-to-watch narrative, but the movie is constructed and edited with an easy poise, a smooth flow that belies and undercuts all the festering turbulence. The music is minimalistic. Stephen Goldblatt’s cinematography is refreshing to behold- the cool elegant visuals form a subtle counterpoint to the raw emotional climate. The dialogue has a naughty glint of wit,a dash of naked honesty, and a fair amount of super-strong unprintable stuff. If words could bleed, then the encounter between Larry and Anna in their home could rank as one of the bloodiest knock-outs in cinema.

I wondered why Nicols ,after all these years ,should go to the trouble of making an elaborately crafted film that again displays a disturbing portrait of wounded partners. He may have liked the idea of composing a swansong in a visually alluring 21st century setting with a young,less rigid, more hopeful cast of players. He may have also wanted to emphasize an edict found in a stray but crucial line of prescription that the doctor dispenses to his unbidden visitor towards the end of the film.

By its shameless honesty in showing the underbelly of romantic relationships, by the powerhouse performances of its gloriously flawed players, and by its sophisticated depiction of savage desire, Closer brings together its shards and velvet to form a modern masterpiece.The film’s tagline says "If you believe in love at first sight,you never stop looking". Like the movie’s title, that is as cynical as it is promising.




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