Spider
review by Paula Nechak, 28 February 2003

Study of Character

Who knows what lurks in the mind of the characters in David Cronenberg's world?

Only briefly, with the advent of a new film by this Canadian master every few years, can we live inside their heads. Even then, though we linger in the shadows of the extreme places they reside - that outskirt of acceptance and the norm - it's not necessarily a realm we'd care to vacation in for any great length of time. But damned if we don't want to return again and again for momentous short visits.

Dead Ringers, Videodrome, Naked Lunch, Scanners, ExistenZ, Crash -- The Fly and now Spider have enticed us. Ironically, the films that feature a commonplace amount of dialogue and exchange, are sometimes harder to access than the quiet interiorized world of Spider, which, in the action that transpires within the main character's head -- is more telling than all the scripted words in the other works. It took stillness to bring out the best in Cronenberg and while Spider is not without its flaws, it is a wonderful study of character and fantasy that results in tragedy.

Spider is based upon the book by Patrick McGrath, a fiction writer who shares Cronenberg's fascinations, and McGrath adapted his novel into screenplay form. Cronenberg must have seemed the only logical choice to tackle the guts of a McGrath work --  with Dr. Haggard's Disease and Asylum, two parts of McGrath's "New Gothic" story set -- for the like sensibilities are profound; they're eerily in sync over the relationship between mind and body and the continual human striving to make some sense of reality and to mold it, despite strangeness or grotesque deviance, and somehow shape it into the illusion of safety and stability.

Cronenberg has said he read philosophy while mulling over Spider and while the Freudian elements are obvious, he insists Schopenheauer, Kant and Heidegger also rear their heads in his vision.

Dennis "Spider" Cleg  (electrically played, though not without some comic as well as profound touches by Ralph Fiennes) is released prematurely from a psychiatric hospital and, returning to the scene of his childhood, takes uncertain refuge in a dingy boarding house run by the imperious Mrs. Wilkinson (Lynn Redgrave). Daily, Spider revisits the various places and haunts that formed him and in a brilliant stroke, Cronenberg flashes back to a youthful Spider's life and allows the grown man to take place in the memory play as an observer It's a tricky device that works and even lends depth and point of view to the limited action that transpires -- what we do not know is if it is the truth or a delusion of Spider's troubled mind.

As a boy Spider lives with his mum (Miranda Richardson) and dad (Gabriel Byrne), whose nightly sojourns to the local pub have created a chasm in the marriage. Richardson plays three roles in the film -- mother, whore and authority figure -- all Freudian emanations of "woman" and all quite brilliantly distinguished by the actress.

In The Age Cronenberg stated that he asked McGrath to "get very specific about what was going on in flashback.

"When the adult Spider is present in a scene with the boy, you can assume it was something that actually happened. But there are moments when the adult Spider is there but the boy is not and you have to assume this is something he may have imagined but didn't actually witness. And then there's a  third kind of reality which we called infected memory where he was hallucinating, basically."

Fiennes slouches and shuffles and obsessively finds the soul of the grown Spider (with great help from Bradley Hall, who plays the young Dennis with the right amount of innocence and instability). He instills not only honest traits to his illness --  thankfully there is none of that idiot savant or heroic-but-misunderstood mush that afflicts so many Hollywood movies about mental maladies --  but manages, through the exterior stillness and loneliness of Spider's world, to contribute a smidgen of dignity to a man who, in an altered state, acts with his own limited courage against the demons and dragons that linger within the reality he perceives and inhabits.


Directed by:
David Cronenberg

Starring:
Ralph Fiennes
Miranda Richardson
Gabriel Byrne
Bradley Hall
Lynn Redgrave
John Neville
Gary Reineke
Philip Craig

Written by:
Patrick McGrath 
David Cronenberg

Rated:
R - Restricted.
Under 17 requires
parent or adult
guardian.

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