There is always an air of controversy surrounding Roman Polanski, but one must try to leave these convictions at the door when going to see one of his films. It won’t do you any good. Besides, you won’t have time to gossip about his personal life before you are unceremoniously thrown into Carnage; a hilarious and farcical story about two sets of parents coming together to discuss a fight that took place between their respective children.
Carnage is set in New York, and opens with a pair of boys getting into a fight. Nothing too serious, or malicious – just your usual school-yard-forgotten-the-next-day kind of scuffle. However, the parents of one of the boys, Penelope (Jodie Foster) and Michael (John C. Reilly), beg to differ. They take the fight seriously enough to warrant a meeting with the other boy’s parents, Nancy (Kate Winslet) and Alan (Christoph Waltz), at their apartment. What starts as them simply signing a letter of acknowledgement turns into an offer of cobbler and coffee, thwarting any attempt Nancy and Alan make to leave the other couple’s apartment – and there are numerous attempts.
Soon after, their harmless and mature interaction becomes a mad, hysterical confrontation. Character flaws are picked out and promptly addressed, problems in each of the marriages are slowly brought to attention, and it rapidly becomes clear where the real schoolyard fight is taking place. Their strange and startling meeting culminates in a drowned Blackberry and vomit. Lots of vomit…
Based on Yasmina Reza’s play Gods Of Carnage, Polanski’s adaptation is both true to its source of inspiration and ambitious; accomplished in its own right. Although Penelope and Michael’s constant efforts to draw Nancy and Alan back into their apartment can seem a little tenuous – a plot device which one can imagine working better on stage – the film taking place under one roof never once feels tedious or boring. “A comedy of no manners,” Carnage exposes the childish politics of parenthood, and how adults conceal their own immature hitches with a veneer of flashy art catalogues and handheld devices.
The fluidity of Carnage is owed largely to the stellar performances offered up by the film’s quartet of actors.
The fluidity of Carnage is owed largely to the stellar performances offered up by the film’s quartet of actors. Winslet and Foster are, unsurprisingly, hilarious and wonderful; respectively playing the neglected and overbearing wives. Whilst Winslet’s performance could be considered more theatrical than cinematic, she is nonetheless witty and entertaining to watch – and even manages to play a rambling drunk without it becoming too irritating. Foster plays the prim wife of Michael, and skirts the line between neat and orderly and obsessive compulsive. She wonderfully portrays the bohemian parent, who raises their child on art and Bach – and never expects them to consort with ruffians, let alone get into fights with one.
Waltz plays the work-obsessed Alan, and seems to nab all the funniest lines. Attached to his Blackberry cell phone, he initially participates in conversation very reluctantly; however, he ends up not only agreeing to stay for the next round of apple and pear cobbler, but bonds with Michael as they crack open a bottle of single malt Scotch. Waltz even manages to conjure up a passable American accent, not that it matters too much; his portrayal of the savvy attorney is blithe and amusingly dismissive.
John C. Reilly could be considered a strange casting, his most notable film roles being that of tedious frat pack comedies, but, on the odd occasion, he has surprised audiences with his performances in more serious titles, such as Magnolia and The Good Girl. And he doesn’t disappoint in Carnage. Expertly and deftly blending even measures of comedy and tragedy (and those two usually go hand-in-hand anyway, right?), Reilly fast becomes the most entertaining performer on screen; acting as the bizarre voice of reason amidst the hysteria.
Although Carnage, for the most part, maintains the same clever, even tone, there is a point where the film momentarily derails – namely when the Scotch gets bandied about, and Winslet dissolves into a shrill drunken woman. Whilst the film is, in its essence, farcical, this ploy ends up backfiring and tainting the third act with slapstick. Fortunately, the ending recovers from this and normality – or what the audience has come to consider normal from this strange quartet – is restored.
Carnage’s actors are frantic in a banal and claustrophobic habitat. They fight and laugh and fight again, and run themselves in circles until they, and we, feel giddy (particularly Nancy). The parents’ meeting is both exhausting and fun to watch, and with a slight 79 minutes running time, the film won’t leave you feeling drained or irritable. Polanski paces his piece perfectly, directing his cast and crew with an assured hand – which is what one has come to expect from such a notorious director. Although sometimes lacking in balance, Carnage is still a slick film about parenting politics.
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