Paul Schrader (director)
BFI Film (studio)
24 September 2018 (released)
23 October 2018
Another dark and seemingly complex screenplay from the late top playwright Harold Pinter. In his lifetime Pinter adapted a number of best selling novels for the screen as well as adaptations of his own plays. THE COMFORT OF STRANGERS (1990) is based on award winning novelist Ian McEwan's critically acclaimed second novel.
Angelo Badalamenti's music is only too revealing from the outset; one was put in mind of a slow movement from a Beethoven symphony: you just know that there will be no happy conclusion here and that our young protagonists are walking 'wittingly' into the lion's den. As well as the tragic classical style music we also have incidental music suggestive of mystic Egypt (as opposed to an Italian mandolin).
Mary (Natasha Richardson) and Colin (Rupert Everett) are an attractive and rather bored (judging from their inane conversations) young English couple vacationing in Venice (although they don't really know why they are there). Mary has two children from a previous relationship, her current relationship with Colin seems to be built more on their physical attraction to each other. During their meanderings around the ancient canalled city of Renaissance splendor it becomes obvious that a sinister man in a white suit (Christopher Walken, who else?) observes their every move. After getting hopelessly lost amid the countless mazelike back alleys they finally 'bump' into the man in question who introduces himself as Robert and charmingly offers to take them to a little restaurant (which Robert happens to own!) that serves very good Venetian food. After a long walk they find themselves in a not particularly upmarket establishment where they’ve ran out of food anyway. Robert brings them an already opened bottle of ‘nourishing’ red wine as he puts it gallantly. After being overly obtrusive, Colin asks him about himself and Robert goes into a long monologue, some of which we heard in voiceover at the film's beginning, starting with his domineering father's big black moustache. After leaving Robert at the table, Mary and Colin proceed to wander through a deserted and nightly Venice, with Mary getting sick from too much wine and not enough food. They then get lost again and sleep in the street only to meet Robert again the next morning in a café by the St Mark’s Basilica although initially both Colin and Mary hope that Robert would not spot them.
Alas Robert does and invites them back to his house - a huge old museum of a place on the canal itself. Colin and Mary then meet Robert’s wife Caroline (Helen Mirren). When Robert is alone with Colin he starts to tell him more about his father and grandfather (both of whom are buried nearby) and shows him family mementos but an unsympathetic remark earns Colin a heavy blow to the solar plexus, which winds him completely. However in the next scene they are all having dinner together. Here Robert offends them with his attitude toward 'perverts'. Before this, Mary has told Caroline she was a member of a 'women's theatre group’ though Caroline appears to be a little green about this area. By this time the writing should be clearly on the wall: Robert and Caroline are a seriously kinky couple, possibly very dangerous and should be avoided at all costs. For some reason there is a lack of serious verbal communication between Colin and Mary. The 'drop dead' gorgeous Colin would rather talk about the fact that there is not another word for thighs like there is for breasts or posterior. It might also be mentioned that Colin and Mary stayed overnight and when they awoke in the nude their clothes were missing… with Caroline admitting she had to go and marvel at the young couple in their bed. She admits to Mary how attractive she thinks Colin is. Obviously Robert also shares this opinion. Now what would you have done in their position?
Schrader and Pinter's piece is indeed unsettling throughout although at times terribly slow but that is part of the nightmare played out in a beautiful old city backdrop. The trouble (if indeed that is the word) is that it is hard to have any feelings or sympathy for any of the four characters. Walken's psycho ‘gentleman’ is probably the most interesting as he is the least dull. Everett was never one to overact. Richardson's character does not appear sharp enough to have been in a Women's Theatre Group. Mirren's character has become subjugated to sado-masochism - can anyone actually connect with this lot? However, if you are looking for another sinister trip to Venice after DON’T LOOK NOW then this will suffice though no comparisons between those two movies should be made as such, seeing how DON’T LOOK NOW is in fact a horror film though protrudes the same atmosphere of utter menace and unsettling forebodings. ‘A Discomfort of Strangers’ may have been a more appropriate title.