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Carnage (15)

Roman Polanski loves a nice apartment

Roman Polanski loves a nice apartment

Carnage (15)
dir: Roman Polanski

At a time when property markets have sustained heavy bruising, it's reassuring to see that Roman Polanski hasn't lost his love of a good apartment. Among his recurrent themes are persecution, paranoia and insidious power struggles, so it's only natural that he should have taken a prolonged interest in real estate.

Like any estate agent, Polanski has an acute eye for accentuating the positive. Take Rosemary's Baby, where you get a roomy New York residence with fantastic light. Yes, your neighbours are Satanists but what a small price to pay for a property overlooking the park. In The Pianist, you have the run of some delightful Warsaw lofts and apartments. The one downside is that it's 1940 and you are Jewish.

Any threat in Carnage comes from the quartet of smug parents bickering in a tasteful Brooklyn apartment. Penelope Longstreet (Jodie Foster) and her husband Michael (John C Reilly) are hosting an informal summit with the Cowans - Nancy (Kate Winslet) and Alan (Christoph Waltz). In a neighbourhood park, the Cowans' son used a stick to inflict some brutal amateur dentistry on the Longstreets' boy. This is undisputed. What shifts gradually and violently is the balance of blame and the consequences of a random act of unkindness.

Theatregoers will recognise this film as God of Carnage, Yasmina Reza's horror-comedy of manners, which she has adapted with Polanski. Film can direct our attention more decisively than theatre and there is a special delight as the camera registers each estrangement and rapprochement. One of the joys of the writing is how fluidly the allegiances change; the characters keep switching sides like a wrestling tag-team with loyalty issues.

Discrepancies are at first semantic. Alan, a lawyer, objects to the suggestion that his son "disfigured" anyone; Michael proposes "momentarily disfigured" instead. By the end of the film, each person has had the objects by which they define themselves, and even the language they favour, jeopardised or destroyed.

The catalyst for all the chaos is a humble stick: as with the script's references to Darfur, the air of savagery undermines any apparent sophistication. The narrow corridors and hallways of the apartment expose these people as rats in a lavish maze. Michael, a caveman in meat-coloured knitwear, fears rodents and lizards - they're too low to the ground for his liking. He must know how close he is to them. When he crashes to the floor, or Nancy scrambles around retrieving the contents of her handbag, the gliding camera joins them down there, where they really belong.

Claustrophobia, and a performance by Waltz that evokes callousness without caricature, are the film's greatest assets. And the device of reeling the Cowans back in whenever they are poised to leave has echoes of Buñuel's The Exterminating Angel, not previously apparent. But I missed Tamsin Greig, who played on stage the role now given to Winslet. Greig's vulnerability challenged the cruelty of the text: she was a lovely bag of nerves whose sanity hung genuinely in the balance. Even under fire, Winslet is formidable.

At least she isn't disastrous. That honour goes to Foster. Think of a screen performer with a dainty comic touch and it will be several months before Foster's name occurs to you. The darting eyes and panting delivery that should lend themselves to comedy are, in her, warning signs of an anxiety potent enough to kill off any humour.

Gains have been made in the adapting. The sound design, with its distant wailing sirens and barking dogs, provides a wry commentary. Alexandre Desplat's score builds from anguished strings to thundering timpani. But there are a corresponding number of losses. Where the play could be uproarious, the film is often merely shrill. (And is cobbler a funnier-sounding dessert than the clafoutis of the original? I think not.) The debit and credit columns cancel one another out. It's not a poor film, merely a neutralised one.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 06 February 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Lucky Dave