Carnage: A Review

Carnage – Dir: Roman Polanski; *ing: Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, John C. Reilly, Christoph Waltz

La bette humaine

Back in Hollywood’s golden age, stars and real life sisters, Olivia De Havilland and Joan Fontaine, had an infamously testy relationship. Sure, there was a barely maintained public façade of familial bonding and air-kissing aplenty when either traipsed off with an Oscar, but people weren’t buying it. After all, both were notoriously bullheaded women of substance and talent, working the same trade, and every so often trespassing on each other’s territory when the role was a particularly juicy one. Both are still around today and well into their nineties, but if you thought time would surely have melted the icy relations by now, well, you obviously haven’t held an ill-defined grudge for the better part of your life.

Such has also – roughly – been the traditional relationship between theatre and film. They are ‘sister’ arts, hawking similar wares, but with entirely different ways of working, co-existing but also forever more than a little aloof and suspicious of each other. They too tend to step on each other’s toes every now and again, and devoted audiences for each look on with bated breath to see who’ll screw it up in more embarrassing ways. Of course instances of theatre-to-film are far more common than the other way around, so film is naturally more often the subject of scrutiny from theatre snobs salivating at the thought of catching out them uncultured 35mm types. And thus we come to Carnage, the latest in a long line of from-sublime-to-ridiculous stage-to-screen adaptations, which will doubtless rankle proscenium purists, and frustrate cinephiles with its rigidly theatrical construction.

Adapted from Yasmina Reza’s 2006 play, Carnage is a single-location, real-time narrative about two couples in the midst of trying to amicably discuss a violent altercation that has occurred between their children. Penelope (Foster) and Michael Longstreet (Reilly)’s son Ethan has had two teeth – incisors, as the mother points out – knocked out by 11 year-old Zachary, whose parents Nancy (Winslet) and Alan Cowan (Waltz) have come to the ‘momentarily disfigured’ boy’s home to settle the matter in a civilized fashion. As the evening wears on, however, the facades of civility are stripped away as social niceties are dropped in favour of some good old-fashioned personal-political heckling. And vomiting.

Adapting a stage play for the screen is not really new territory for director Polanski; he previously adapted Ariel Dorfman’s Death And The Maiden with similarly uneven results. Interestingly both plays have thematic similarities, mainly their deconstruction of physical, emotional and psychological brutality, but where Maiden went the harrowing drama route, Carnage is really black comedy, playing off of the characters’ frail vanities, as well as suspicion of and contempt for each other’s carefully constructed personal moral order. It has much in common with Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf, but while Mike Nichols’ 1966 adaptation of that play shook loose of the stage’s shackles to make it a truly cinematic piece, Carnage doesn’t quite manage the same feat, and therein lies the rub. It feels too stifled, too rooted, too much like a theatre piece to really work as a film. In particular, the contrivances through which the Cowans stay sequestered at the Longstreets feel awkwardly forced. And yet there are moments here and there which make it worthwhile, especially as played by the gleefully game cast, each one attacking the idiosyncrasies of their character with relish; you want to sock all of them turn by turn.  Pity the film doesn’t quite measure up.

So, as William Shakespeare once uttered, theatre and the cinema are strange bedfellows and rarely shall the twain meet.

Okay, I totally made that up, but you get the picture.

Cult – Six Degrees Of Separation: Fred Schepisi’s adaptation of the John Guare play helped prove that Will Smith was much more than just a Fresh Prince.

Current – The Ides Of March: This George Clooney directed screen version of 2008 play Farragut North is a surefire Oscar contender

Coming Attraction – Coriolanus: Ralph Fiennes makes his directorial debut with this modern take on Shakespeare’s cautionary tale about men of violence.

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