Carnage (2011) *


Though returning wisely to the character-led intimacy of his best films, like Cul De Sac and Knife In The Water, this is an odd choice for Roman Polanski, in that it's plainly not a director's piece. The point is the acting and the writing, and the director has to be as unobtrusive as possible, which for the most part Polanski is, bar the occasional dash of clunky, old-fashioned symbolism (the sound of dogs barking whenever the characters argue in the corridor of the apartment building; two heavily signposted unexplained stains on the sheet music on the piano, one like a wine stain, the other like a red blood splash).

Two things very strongly in its favour: it doesn't try to open out a chamber piece that would be irredeemably diluted by changes of location, and it doesn't outstay its welcome: it's the latest example of an admirable trend in modern cinema to bring back the less-than-ninety-minute movie. (That's admirable from the perspective of cinema as an art form, not necessarily from that of the punter looking for value from his overpriced ticket.)
But given its irresistible premise - four strong performers bickering stylishly on one set - I expected to have a lot more fun with this than I did, though it's far from a disaster, providing consistent if not outstanding entertainment, albeit of the cynical sort, for audiences who don't mind taking lessons in how hypocritically thin is the crust of middle class civilisation from a rapist on the run. Both writing and acting seem to be constantly on the verge of achieving a resonance they never quite find; the performances in particular struggling to overcome the feeling of staginess that comes of trying to give a naturalistic account of obviously artificial dialogue and character development (especially in the second half, when it becomes increasingly broad and shrill, the characters' guards lowered and intimacies revealed, via conveniently fast-acting drunkenness, with a haste and spontaneity that is entirely unrealistic). The acting is often showstopping but never really involving, though each of the four seize their opportunities, and Kate Winslet also gets to vomit, quite spectacularly.

Ultimately, it's a slight thing. I'm not sure what the exact opposite of a crescendo is, but it certainly reaches one at the end.
Polanski appears in a split second cameo as a nervous neighbour peering out from behind his door; the barely audible voice of a secretary on the telephone is provided, for some reason, by Julie Adams.