As debut features go, they probably don’t get classier than Hossein Amini’s The Two Faces of January. It’s stylish, elegantly pitched, if a little thematically derivative, but always impressively directed. Playing out of competition in Berlin Film Festival (one of the few lucky films to run in Berlinale Special strand), it’s by far one of the best looking films I’ve seen in the festival. Its lush, gorgeously burnished cinematography evokes old-fashioned 1960’s cinema, the costumes and the three leads – Viggo Mortensen, Kirsten Dunst and Oscar Isaac – are picture perfect. Even the musical score oozes with a Bernard Hermann-esque flavour.
An addition to the cinematic adaptations of Patricia Highsmith’s novels – Alfred Hitchcock did Strangers on a Train, René Clément made Plein Soleil, which Anthony Minghella re-adapted into the novel’s original title The Talented Mr. Ripley – Amini picks up one of Highsmith’s lesser tomes, glosses it with old-school Hitchcockian panache and wraps it with some Clément cool. It’s still highly entertaining, lending the picture some vintage elegance, but only to the point of familiarity as this bears many similar elements to Ripley. The rivalry between two male protagonists, the besuited American Chester and his Grecian tour-guide Rydal, is hugely reminiscent to Philippe Greenleaf and Tom Ripley – and the woman that comes between them, Dunst’s Colette is practically the Marge figure.
Having written the screenplay for Nicholas Winding Refn’s Drive, his continental leap from LA’s sonic noir to Greece’s classical Athens and its sun-kissed islands couldn’t be more vastly different in cinematic style, tone and milieu. But Amini maintains his penchant for turning neo-romantic escapes into tense situations – here an idyllic, beautiful summer increasingly becomes hostile, craggy and dark, as the trio is forced to whisk away from the streets of Athens to the ruins of Crete. The most fascinating aspect is the relationship between Chester and Rydal (Mortensen and Davis both typically excellent), both crooks in their own ways, and the film tries to hold back some form of judgement so it’s left for us to decide who’s the more morally bankrupt of the two. Dunst, despite having the smaller role, gets to hold her own ground between the two male leads – beautiful, alluring yet impulsive in spirit and skeptical which of the two men to believe in. If there’s a caveat – it’s a curiously uninvolving climax that lacks frisson, moving from a Knossos maze to a footchase along the alleyways of Istanbul that feels like we’ve seen before in other spy films. But prior to that, Amini has quite an assured debut in his directorial filmography.