Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Some critics have already referred to Spider as "David Cronenberg's best work"; it is quite a departure for him, though at the same time it is difficult to imagine any other director handling this so gently while maintaining a proper sense of alienation; the intense praise, however, seems more likely to be a product of the film's comparative accessibility than of any overwhelming virtue.

The first part of Spider is slow and difficult to get into (especially for those unfamiliar with the story). This is difficult to avoid, as Cronenberg is determined to get viewers into the mindset of the eponymous shuffling schizophrenic, but it might perhaps have been pre-empted with an intial hint at what was to come. What holds one's attention during this time is Fiennes' uncharacteristic performance, his character rendered all the more tragic because one cannot help but compare it to his previous work; and the sheer visual beauty of the piece, hidden in all sorts of little things as Spider is drawn to the incursions of the natural world, and of decay, in the urban environment where he finds himself.

Copy picture

Cronenberg's bravery with this film centres on his choice to remove the central narrative which guided readers through Patrick McGrath's remarkable novel. It is a difficult decision, which simultaneously brings the audience closer to Spider as a person and makes it more difficult for them to comprehend his purposes.

The story skillfully interweaves tales of his childhood with his present day activities so that we get a sense of the immediacy of his confusion, and Bradley Hall, the small boy who plays the young Spider, really is very good indeed. The film is packed with superb performances, most notably Gabriel Byrne's; he is at his very best as the gentle man faced with day to day temptations as he tries to cope with the perplexing behaviour of his son, a man whom we are led to see as a monster, but whose distant, often unvoiced suffering evokes the tragedy at the story's core. In dual, overlapping roles, Miranda Richardson is also very impressive; it's hard to think of any other actress who could have coped with the part. And Lynn Redgrave, unusually gruff as the landlady of Spider's halfway house, provides the vitally plain, realistic performance against which all of the madness can play out.

The lack of concern for glamour among all concerned makes this a much subtler, more affecting film than might have been expected. However, in emotional terms, it doesn't hit nearly as hard as the book. Something has been lost along the way; it's hard to say just where.

For what is essentially a psychological horror film, Spider is remarkable for its quietness, its unassuming grace. It rewards patient viewing. Perhaps its most vulnerable quality is that it is too slight, yet this itself might be construed as a comment upon the precarious existence of the mentally ill. Sympathetic without becoming sentimental, this is worth a thousand K-PAXes. In its own way, it is extraordinarily bold. Catch it if you can.

Reviewed on: 27 Jun 2007
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A man undergoes a mental collapse.
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Read more Spider reviews:

Keith Hennessey Brown ****
Angus Wolfe Murray ***1/2

Director: David Cronenberg

Writer: Patrick McGrath, based on the novel by Patrick McGrath

Starring: Ralph Fiennes, Miranda Richardson, Gabriel Byrne, Lynn Redgrave, John Neville, Bradley Hall, Gary Reineke, Philip Craig, Cliff Saunders, Tara Ellis, Sara Stockbridge

Year: 2002

Runtime: 99 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: Canada/UK


EIFF 2002

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