David Cronenberg's ruthlessly unsentimental adaptation of Patrick McGrath's 1990 novel duplicates the book's insular point of view, entangling viewers in the skewed perceptions of Dennis "Spider" Cleg (Ralph Fiennes), whose nickname alludes to the obsessive, web-like constructions he painstakingly weaves from bits of discarded string. Newly released from...read more
David Cronenberg's ruthlessly unsentimental adaptation of Patrick McGrath's 1990 novel duplicates the book's insular point of view, entangling viewers in the skewed perceptions of Dennis "Spider" Cleg (Ralph Fiennes), whose nickname alludes to the obsessive, web-like constructions he painstakingly weaves from bits of discarded string. Newly released from a mental hospital, Spider moves into a halfway house in London's East End, which the starchy Mrs. Wilkinson (Lynn Redgrave) runs like a particularly austere boarding school. Trembling and in thrall to a past he relives obsessively, Spider shrouds himself in layers of mucky clothing and seems a twitch away from picking off his own skin with his nicotine-stained nails. Of all the dismal repositories of society's discards, Mrs. Wilkinson's establishment may well be the least suited to helping Spider maintain his fragile and imperfect hold on sanity. Overshadowed by looming gasworks that would cast a pall over the most vigorously untroubled mind, it's located around the corner from the row house where Spider grew up — every moldering brick and paving stone is tainted with damp, disturbing memories. His story unfolds through darkly vividly flashbacks in which the adult Spider lurks in the shadows while his younger self (Bradley Hall) skips inexorably towards some fate than can only be dreadful, given the hollowed-out ruin it made of him. Young Spider's parents, plumber Bill (Gabriel Byrne) and his primly coifed wife (Miranda Richardson), appear happy enough, until Spider trails his father to the local pub and sees him flirting with foul-mouthed tart Yvonne Wilkinson (also Richardson). Bill and Yvonne tryst brutally in sheds and alleys, their tawdry affair apparently culminating in the drunken murder of Spider's mother. McGrath's Spider is a mundane madman, neither an uber-criminal like Hannibal Lecter nor a troubled genius whose brilliance must shine through layers of mental murk. He's just a mundane madman whose greatest triumph is finding a set of Mrs. Wilkinson's precious keys and secreting them in his room, where they provide the illusion of control over his own destiny, then not taking gruesome advantage of the access they provide. Unlike some of his earlier films, which blossom with spectacular grotesquerie, this film is the product of Cronenberg in miniaturist mode. Its minutely detailed revelations work their way under the skin like slivers of glass, chilled by the cold air you can almost feel whistling through the under populated streets, past scabrous wallpaper and frayed upholstery, right into Spider's clenched heart.
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