The path from stage to screen can be a troubled one.
Even a great director can struggle if he decides to limit himself to a single location and challenge the viewer’s attention span with long dialogue-heavy scenes. Sometimes it works wonders and can create a flawless film, as with Sidney Lumet’s 1957 masterpiece 12 Angry Men. But usually you begin to lose focus and just wish the characters would go outside for a walk or something – Lars Von Trier’s experimentally sparse single-set drama Dogville being a prime example.
Carnage falls somewhere in between the two.
Roman Polanski’s adaptation of the French play God of Carnage features Christoph Waltz, Kate Winslet, Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly as sparring New York parents drawn together to discuss the course of action following a fight between their sons.
The four actors on show – three academy award winners and one nominee as the trailer kindly pointed out, much to Reilly’s chagrin I bet – all put in exemplary performances and clearly relished taking part in what is basically just an acting showcase. Most of the dialogue zips along nicely and as things get more physical and farcical all four of them begin to up the ante doing their best to steal the scene. There are no shortage of laughs as what should be a brief meeting about their children’s welfare descends into analysis on the human condition tied together by debate on pharmaceutical practices, apple crumble and Sudanese poverty.
The main problem is just in how things unfold and ultimately unravel during the 80-minute runtime.
There are countless awkward moments that have been carried across from the stage origins which blight the film’s real-time narrative. In a normally constructed film our brains get to tune out and reset for a few split-seconds every three or four minutes as we adjust to a new scene or group of characters. Here the only respite comes in the form of outside phone-calls or a brief walk to one room and back again. In between this there is lots of awkward standing around, checking phones and rubbing your stomach while the other two actors go at it with their meaty dialogue. With nothing new to look at, the mind wanders and we’re left questioning things like how so little scotch could make them that drunk in ten minutes.
As alliances are formed and every character has individual moments of breakdown it all begins to feel quite formulaic and staid.
This certainly isn’t the worst thing that Polanski has ever done (damn I promised myself I wouldn’t mention that…), and by the end after cleaning up the vomit the only thing that we haven’t seen was a massive punch-up. And yet despite all that, great performances and no shortage of laughs, it somehow struggles to escape the feeling of being lifeless and incredibly mediocre.
France, Germany, Poland, Spain / Roman Polanski / Yasmina Reza, Roman Polanski / Starring: Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz, John C. Reilly / 80min / Drama, Comedy / Release: 16 December 2011 (US/Canada), 3 February 2012 (UK/Irl)