After the indifferent reaction to his first original script since Videodrome, the often-underrated eXistenZ, this latest film from Canadian genius David Cronenberg sees him return to a novel adaptation. The novel this time is Spider, written in 1990 by Patrick McGrath, who also provides the screenplay. It’s not immediately obvious as Cronenberg material, & had already been passed around many other directors, including Stephen Frears (Dangerous Liaisons, The Grifters).
Ralph Fiennes stars as the title character, aka Dennis Clegg, a deeply disturbed man who moves into a dingy halfway rehabilitation house in his old neighbourhood. The head of the household is the no-nonsense Mrs Wilkinson (a wonderful turn from Lynn Redgrave). There he starts to remember events from his childhood, & begins to piece together what happened to him. But how much of what he remembers actually happened?
A quiet, slow burning & largely downbeat film, Spider has periods of little or no dialogue, instead relying on the moody & intricate visuals & Fiennes’ remarkable performance. The whole film revolves around Spider & Fiennes is well up to the challenge, delivering a mesmerising mix of weird mumbles & tics. It could almost be a performance consisting of simple mannerisms, but Fiennes takes it up a notch somehow & makes Spider completely plausible. Not long into the film I saw not Fiennes, but only Spider. He’s aided by some particularly fine supporting performances, with particular mention having to go to the always excellent Gabriel Byrne, & Miranda Richardson who does extremely well in a complex & ambiguous role. Newcomer Bradley Hall also handles the tricky role of the young Spider very well.
The film is really wonderful to look at, with Cronenberg getting some wonderful angles on Andrew Sanders’ dingy set designs, aided no end by Peter Suschitzky’s gorgeous cinematography. There’s also a typically fine & sensitive, yet sparse, score by Cronenberg’s regular composer Howard Shore that helps to transport us into Spiders’ world.
The whole film is told from the viewpoint of Spider, as he delves into his memory – quite literally we watch his memories with him. A particularly fascinating thing that crops up is that we frequently have to start questioning what we are seeing, & how reliable it is, as reality, dream & flashbacks mix together as one. In a way, it’s a film about trying to make sense of the world around us. This could easily have wound up being supremely confusing, but in these sure hands it is if anything a little too easy to piece together what’s happening.
This plotting also allows Cronenberg to work again with some of his favourite themes, including those of sex & violence, mortality, mental disintegration, & the relationship between the two sexes. It’s really fascinating to see how these familiar themes crop up in this immediately unfamiliar setting of a low-key British drama. The resulting film is more The Dead Zone than The Fly, with peculiar echoes of Dead Ringers. It also reminded me at times of both Felicia’s Journey & Last Orders – two other recent superior British films made by directors from other countries.
If there are some flaws here then, it must be that the plot, when it actually boils down to it, is pretty minimal & under whelming, doubtless leaving some viewers with a case of “Is that it?” It could easily be argues that Spider is a film that takes an age to go no-where in particular. Also, particularly in comparison with Cronenberg’s other films, Spider is perhaps a touch too restrained, too polite, too… British. Still, for some people that will undoubtedly be a major plus point, & I can see it becoming quite a few peoples’ favourite Cronenberg film. I don’t know what my own favourite of his films is, but I don’t think Spider is it.
Nevertheless, Spider is a quietly rewarding, absorbing & gently affecting melancholic human drama that will please fans of intelligent art house cinema. If you’re Cronenberg in full-on body-horror mode then you’ll doubtless be disappointed. Either way, it’s very reassuring to know that after around 30 years behind the camera, one of the most consistently intelligent, provocative, articulate & perceptive directors to have been associated primarily with the horror genre is still capable of exploring new areas & producing such wonderfully crafted & utterly fascinating films as this. Spider feels like the kind of film that will worm its way into your subconscious & demand repeat viewings, & I think its reputation will only grow in future years.
The UK DVD from Redbus Home Entertainment comes with a gorgeous anamorphic widescreen transfer, & excellent Dolby 5.1 sound. The principal extras are a series of interviews with some of the key talents involved, including Cronenberg, Fiennes, Byrne, Richardson, Redgrave, Catherine Bailey (producer), & Partick McGrath. Although there are some interesting things said, these interviews are rather uneasily presented with lengthy title cards introducing each question, which makes it unnecessarily hard to wade through them all. You also get two trailers, rounding out a modest & slightly underwhelming package where the film is undoubtedly the real attraction.