A new Roman Polanski film is always something to be excited about, but hearing that his latest opus was to be an adaptation of a Yasmina Reza play inspired doubts. Reza is brilliant, but her plays are well known for their small casts and witty wordplay – would Polanski be able to translate Le Dieu du Carnage (God of Carnage) to the big screen, without making it boring or losing the soul of the play?
After a nicely shot opening sequence, in which the credits zoom out over the act of playground violence which serves as the catalyst for the film’s events, with Alexandre Desplat’s nicely bombastic music setting the offbeat tone, things didn’t look too promising. We leap into the story of two couples who have come together to discuss their sons, one of whom knocked out two of the other’s teeth with a stick. For a while it looks like all the actors are going to be doing their default setting roles: the parents of the victim are Jodie Foster, tightly wound, and John C Reilly, affable, while the parents of the “maniac” aggressor are Kate Winslet, classy and quiet, and Christoph Waltz, who munches down loads of cake.
The first fifteen minutes or so roll out in a rather dull fashion. The players do fine, but there’s that niggling sense of awkwardness which is hard to avoid in stage-to-screen adaptations. It isn’t something we can blame on anyone in particular: things which sparkle in the theatre just often come across as a bit flat on the big screen. However, after a while everything seems to click slowly into place. As the film descends into farce – around the time Kate Winslet throws up her apple and pear cobbler (the secret recipe is gingerbread crumbs) – the actors all start giving 100% and the film comes to life.
A strength of the play which is carried over brilliantly into the film is the fickle nature of human relationships – from the initial foursome composed of two distinct couples, the characters begin to reshape themselves, forming new alliances as and when they hit upon common ground. Reilly and Waltz bond over whisky and cigars, while Foster and Winslet laugh at their Ivanhoe-derived machismo. Everybody attacks Foster for her frequent crying, while deep rooted problems in both couples are brought to the fore and mocked by their rivals.
The rest of the film is highly enjoyable and very often raucously funny. Interesting musings arise on the suffering that comes with having a partner and a family. Then it ends. Again, this is something which can’t really be helped, but 80 minutes is an awfully short running time. A familiar issue for anyone who has ever taken a playwriting course is the difficulty in concluding a farce, but Polanski (who co-wrote the screenplay with Reza) could have tried a little harder to neaten out the ending for cinema audiences.
This is a film which will probably improve with repeat viewings, in which the earlier scenes will most likely seem more nuanced. For there is a lot to enjoy herein – Waltz shows far more skill than I have seen him display thus far (no, I don’t rate his performance in Inglorious Basterds particularly highly, sorry about that), while Foster is a neurotic delight. John C. Reilly shows why he has managed to live parallel lives as both a serious and a comic actor, and Kate Winslet vomits with style. Polanski’s direction is subtle but effective, and gives just the right about of movement to what is essentially a one room affair, while the script manages to retain much of what makes the play work so well. It would be nice to see Polanski and Reza work together again, perhaps on an adaptation of her train-carriage-bound two-hander L’Homme du Hasard (The Unexpected Man).
Verdict: Be patient and you’ll be rewarded with a genuinely funny film delivered by a top notch cast, but you might find it all a little lightweight and it’s definitely over too soon.