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Carnage

Carnage

Released 3 February 2012
Director Roman Polanski
Starring

Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz, John C. Reilly
Writer(s) Yasmina Reza, Roman Polanski
Producer(s) Saïd Ben Saïd
Origin France, Germany, Poland, Spain
Running Time 79 minutes
Genre Comedy, drama
Rating 15A
38

Staged.

God of Carnage was a hugely successful stage play from French writer Yasmina Reza. Like Art, Reza’s previous play, it was translated into English by Christopher Hampton and has been performed to English-speaking audiences around the world. Its productions have attracted some big-name stars such as Ralph Fiennes, Jeff Daniels, Hope Davis, James Gandolfini and Marcia Gay Harden. There was also a production in Dublin early last year that starred American actress Maura Tierney and Ardal O'Hanlon.

However, unlike Art, it’s been adapted into a film and Hollywood’s favourite statutory...fugitive, Roman Polanski, has been brought in to direct it. The film is set in New York, but given Polanski’s continuing legal problems in the U.S., it was actually filmed in Paris. Having clipped its title to simply Carnage, Polanski has attracted some serious acting talent in Jodie Foster and Kate Winslet, two actresses with three Oscars between them. Then there’s German actor Christoph Waltz, still hot off his Oscar-winning performance in Inglourious Basterds and the great John C. Reilly, the character actor’s character actor.

The film opens with one boy attacking another with a stick after a petty squabble. He knocks two of the boy’s teeth out and the rest of the film concerns itself with the aftermath of the incident between the two boys’ parents. The parents of the aggressor, Alan (Waltz) and Nancy (Winslet), visit the parents of the victim, Michael (Reilly) and Penelope (Foster), to talk about the incident. At first things are ever so civilised as Michael and Penelope agree not to make a big fuss about the incident. Things seem to be resolved amicably, until Michael decides he has to be a gracious host and offers them coffee and some apple and pear cobbler Penelope made earlier.

The two couples uncomfortably make small talk but are constantly interrupted by Alan, who’s a lawyer, persistently taking calls on his mobile phone. Nancy is horrified by Michael regaling them with a story of how he casually put the family hamster out on the street. Penelope keeps trying to raise the issue of how the boys must learn from the incident but this irks Nancy and she starts to snipe. Then suddenly Nancy vomits over the coffee table and Penelope’s precious art books. Tempers get more and more frayed and various arguments break out between all of the protagonists, and between each couple. Things don’t get any better when Michael breaks out the scotch and they all get a little drunk.

The ghost of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? haunts this film. That film was also a talky four-hander that was adapted from a stage play, but the performances were better and the characters a lot more believable. Here, the characters go off on tangents at such a rapid pace over an afternoon that it’s simply not credible. It doesn’t ever feel like a film, it feels like a filmed play. Polanski seems to delight in exposing the hypocrisy behind middle-class, bourgeois mores but it’s not like he’s telling us anything we don’t already know.

The performances, which would probably work fine in a theatre, seem very uneven under the camera’s microscope. Reilly gets most of the few laughs that are going, but his abrupt transformation from amiable peacemaker to aggressive, right-wing bigot is just too sudden to really convince. Waltz is also amusing at times as the callous lawyer although it’s hard to know what accent he’s trying to do. Is it American or European? The two females fare less well. Foster seems to be trying to ‘go big’ but she just comes across as grating and mannered. However Winslet is all over the shop, her character stumbling from one extreme to another like she’s trying to find something to hold on to.

Overall you get the feeling that this is a piece that should have been left on the stage. One thing it does have going for it though, is that at seventy-nine minutes, it is mercifully short so at least it doesn’t outstay its welcome.

- Jim O’Connor