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Polite parents of violent children

Carnage (M). Director: Roman Polanski. Starring: Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz, John C. Reilly. 79 minutes

Booze and civility make uneasy bedfellows, when politeness is used to conceal prejudice and resentment. Edward Albee's 1961 play Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? didn't so much lay this fact bare, as stake it to the earth and sacrifice it to the gods of chaos.

In it, the middle-aged daughter of a university president and her history professor husband invite a (much younger) prodigious biology lecturer and his wife over for what is ostensibly a polite social gathering. Fuelled by alcohol, the gathering degenerates into a series of cruel mental and emotional games, both between and within the couples, that occasionally cross the line into outright abuse.

Polanski's Carnage (based on God of Carnage by French playwright Yasmina Reza) is a worthy successor to Albee's blackly comic benchmark. It, too, sees two couples — lawyer Alan (Waltz), his wife Nancy (Winslett), wholesaler Michael (Reilly) and his author wife Penelope (Foster) — meeting in the name of civility but abandoning it as prejudice and resentment (aided by scotch) gradually slip the leash.

Like Woolf, Carnage takes place in a single location, in Michael and Penelope's flat in moneyed Brooklyn. The searing dialogue and stampeding comedic performances are the film's hallmarks, but Polanski's controlled extrapolation of this diminutive interior is just as commendable. The camera shifts through a string of carefully composed shots that expose every corner of this, what seems to be Michael and Penelope's entire universe, in which Alan and Nancy are ill-fitting interlopers.

The reason for the gathering is that Alan and Nancy's son has hit Michael and Penelope's son in the face with a stick. The aim of both parties is to resolve the situation without resorting to bitter legal wrangling. But as with Australian author Christos Tsiolkas' The Slap this act of violence among children acts as a catalyst to exacerbate the characters' unease about a range of social and relational issues.

The performers prove that just because this is a comedy, it doesn't preclude serious acting. Watch the smug pride with which Penelope force-feeds her guests a decidedly unpleasant looking dessert; contrast this with her anally retentive anguish as she sponges vomit from the pages of an art book (the result of one of the film's most hilarious slapstick moments); and, later, with her fury when she feels judged by both of the men in the room. Other cast members run similar emotional gauntlets.

Only Reilly seems out of his depth. He is a fine character actor who in recent years has grown flabby on a candy-chain of broad comedies. To be fair he does nail the comedic demands of Carnage, but watching him go toe-to-toe with Waltz is like watching an Old English sheepdog trying to keep pace with a greyhound. Waltz, with his careful diction, haughty gestures and calculated smiles, perfectly characterises Alan's well rehearsed lawyer's charm and the prolific arrogance that flexes beneath it.

The comparison between Carnage and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf is apt, but also unfortunate. The biggest difference between them also exposes Carnage's great weakness. Albee's play is divided into three acts, each named to reflect the degeneration of civility: 'Fun and Games' give way to 'Walpurgisnacht' (named for the pagan festival and evoking a gathering of witches) and finally to 'Exorcism'. As the name suggests, this final act gets nasty, but also offers catharsis and resolution.

Carnage, by contrast, is in desperate need of a third act (and at less than 80 minutes running time, it could easily bear it). We see how the degradation of civility lays bare the prejudices and insecurities of the four characters, but the credits roll at the peak of the hostilities. The lack of an 'exorcism' in Carnage is deeply unsatisfying. That said there's no question this is two thirds of a brilliant film.

Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street

Topic tags: Tim Kroenert, Carnage, Who's Afraid of Virginnia Woolf, Edward Albee



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