Martha Fiennes is quite the puzzle. This second feature-length directorial film follows fully six years after her only previous effort, Onegin – a recipient of critical reverence if commercial ennui. Between the two movies she has directed a few music videos, produced some shorts and seemingly done nothing else of note.

So sporadic are these public offerings that it is mighty difficult getting a sense of Martha’s character, interests and style. Perhaps it’s fitting then that Chromophobia’s characters are equally flighty and opaque. In fact, the film neatly encapsulates the frustrations provided by its director: talent is displayed and interest grabbed, but in the end there’s only mild dissatisfaction and a sense of untapped potential.

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Moving on from Onegin, Martha swaps snowy St Petersburg for a sunny London (with a brief skip to Scotland), and a single main character for multiple protagonists within a tableaux arrangement. She also moves anchor to contemporary times, presenting the modern English on a feudal scale, with everyone from moneyed Knights of the Realm to slum-dwelling immigrants getting a slice of the action.

In fact, the balance is fairly top-heavy, with only Penelope Cruz’s cancerous prostitute, her daughter and Rhys Ifans’ smitten social worker representing the lower classes. Journalist Trent (Ben Chaplin) lives far more comfortably, yet in total paucity compared to old friend Marcus (Damian Lewis), a law-firm partner with in a flash pad, a free-spending and art-loving wife Iona (Kristen Scott Thomas), and a silly-named child (Clem Tibber plays Orlando Aylesbury)

Rounding out the moneyed set are Marcus’ father, a still-powerful retired Lord Chief Justice (Ian Holm), his wife (Harriet Walter) and family friend Stephen (Ralph Fiennes), an auction-house buyer who gazes at young boys a little too intently. Paedophilia isn’t the only modern concern on show here: Trent is an eco-warrior, while Ifans’ Colin exposes a fraught welfare system and Iona considers a morale-boosting boob job.

As in any self-respecting Altman-esque mosaic, the various characters are linked more by an over-riding theme than social connections. Martha’s motley crew are all suffering some level of mid-life crisis, or total tragedy in Cruz’s case. Most focused on is Marcus and Iona’s stuttering marriage: he’s obsessed by work, she feels unappreciated and ugly, and neither can communicate. Trouble brews...

With each character obliviously skirting towards an impending doom – a rather Shakespearean tack – Chromophobia strikes a generally depressing tone. Rich houses seem vacuous and shallow; pastimes such as deer-stalking are callous and cruel; yobs violently mug unsuspecting adults; and fraud, anger and lies are all present and correct. In the end it’s too much, too unrealistic. London simply isn’t so relentlessly reprobate.

The only nobility on show comes courtesy of the film’s poorest pair. Despite selling sex, Cruz’s Gloria is sympathetically scripted as a ardent mother, while Ifans is positively prince-like as her saving grace. The pair are just as remote from their fellow protagonists in terms of screen-time and tone, too, making only sporadic experiences and offering a emotional claim at odds with Chromophobia’s otherwise perfidious tone.

Ifans and Cruz also take the acting plaudits, with the latter very affecting as a guarded immigrant. Elsewhere, Holm excels as his retiree struggles to let go, but Lewis and Scott Thomas are too restrained as the modern couple. Fiennes is frustratingly ambiguous. His sister has the same problem; after a exaggerated who’s-who start she directs with verve, only to amble to a soppy finale communicated via a Love Actually-style montage.

Plenty of problems blight Chromophobia then, but these shouldn’t overshadow a key fact: that Martha Fiennes has made a discursive, edgy and always interesting drama about modern topics and traumas. While Matthew McConaughey’s out chasing Caribbean treasure and George Clooney’s playing 1920s baseball, here’s a movie gamely tackling serious issues of the age. And that’s always commendable.

Reviewed on: 16 Apr 2008
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A middle-class London family struggle with dysfunction.
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Director: Martha Fiennes

Writer: Martha Fiennes

Starring: Damian Lewis, Kristin Scott Thomas, Ralph Fiennes, Ben Chaplin, Ian Holm, Harriet Walter, Rhys Ifans, Penelope Cruz

Year: 2005

Runtime: 136 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: UK, France, US

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