BEST KNOWN for a roll-call of classic thrillers from the 1960s and 1970s – REPULSION, ROSEMARY’S BABY, MACBETH and CHINATOWN among them – director Roman Polanski appears, now aged 78, to have lightened up.
Adapting Yasmin Reza’s Tony Award-winning play GOD OF CARNAGE (which toured Australia in 2009), the Oscar winner mines his trademark claustrophobia for laughs, displaying a mischevious glee with his subjects.
A brisk, jaunty farce shot inside a New York-set apartment, its owners are the liberal-minded Longstreets, Michael (Reilly) and Penelope (Foster). We soon learn that their 11-year-old boy has had his two front teeth knocked out at school. The perpetrator’s parents – the uptown Cowans, Alan (Waltz) and Nancy (Winselt) – turn up to try and smooth things over (and avoid a potential lawsuit).
What begins as a polite exercise in diplomacy swiftly descends into anarchy, as each couple throws insults at the other, before turning on themselves.
Foster has rarely been better, as the art-loving, social-climbing Penelope, whose tight-lipped determination unravels in an eye-opening display of pent-up rage. Reilly is also excellent, as her blue-collar chauvinistic husband, whose loathing for his wife’s liberal values is taken out on the family hamster.
Sparring spectacularly with them are their upscale guests: Winslet is a hoot as neurotic investment banker Nancy, and Waltz a riot, as conniving corporate bull Alan. Seemingly glued to his Blackberry, to advise a pharmaceutical client out of a liability case (rather than focus on the task at hand), his is a masterclass in comedic timing.
The staging of this Brooklyn-based affair took place in Paris, where Polanski famously resides, in exile from US authorities (following an unlawful sex charge dating back to 1978). Whether he is indirectly commenting on that or not – there are parallels to THE SLAP and the issue of punishment, at least – he appears to have succeeded in avoiding extradition for good. Perhaps as a result, he’s cheerfully poking fun at the absurdities of middle-class life, if nothing else.
Technically, given the limitations of the stage-based material, he uses his space wisely, shooting with typically expansive flair, while his impeccable cast goes all-out, savouring every precious moment. Rarely, if ever, has such an ensemble gathered on screen to such great effect. All are at the very top of their game.
To keep the momentum going, a clutch of carefully timed devices are employed to keep matters feeling urgent, throughout a short, sharp 80 minutes. The Cowans go to leave on three separate occasions, only to be enticed back. Alan’s infamous mobile phone is, eventually, ‘dealt with’. And Winslet – once again – reminds us what a champion she is, delivering a surprise that would make Monty Python (and Trey Parker and Matt Stone) beam with delight. That her counterpart’s precious coffee-table art book ‘gets it’ only adds to the mischief.
Polanski hasn’t had this much fun in years (you’ll have to keep your eyes peeled to catch his customary cameo) and neither, by the looks of things, has his cast. The likes of Mike Leigh may have ploughed similar turf in the past, but CARNAGE takes matters further, with a sense of abandonment that few could possibly share. A wickedly dark delight.
Critical Rating: 9/10.
CARNAGE is out Thursday.
First published in The Sun-Herald.