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RELEASED: 2002, Cert. 15
RUNNING TIME: Approx. 98 mins
DIRECTOR: David Cronenberg
PRODUCERS: Catherine Bailey, David Cronenberg & Samuel Hadida
SCREENPLAY: Patrick McGrath
MUSIC: Howard Shore
Ralph Fiennes as Spider (Dennis)
Gabriel Byrne as Bill Cleg
Miranda Richardson as Yvonne/Mrs Cleg
Bradley Hall as Spider when a child
John Neville as Terrence
FILM ONLY REVIEW
Spider, a schizophrenic, is released from a psychiatric hospital and takes up residence in a halfway house for mentally ill people who are gradually returning to the community.
The halfway house is situated in the King's Cross area of London where Spider spent his 1950s childhood, and as he walks the streets to take a break from his dingy room in the halfway house and the uncaring, insensitive woman who is in charge of the residents, he begins to backtrack in his mind to his early years.
As Spider virtually relives his traumatised childhood, he becomes increasingly imbalanced and disturbed, remembering the events which eventually resulted in him being hospitalised.
Right from the very first frame, I was hooked on this film.
The acting from everybody is absolutely spot-on top-notch, particularly that of Ralph Fiennes as the dishevelled, mumbling, schizophrenic Spider. Fiennes gives the part of Spider his all, perfecting the shuffling gait, the almost inaudible mutterings as he speaks to what I assume are the voices in his head, and the constant expression of guarded fear in his eyes. He also wears several shirts at once, frantically scribbles his own hieroglyphics into a scruffy notepad and has a fascination with string, the gas-holder outside the halfway house and jigsaw puzzles.
Miranda Richardson very skilfully managed to cope with playing three separate parts, each of them having a vague connection to the viewer, but a powerful connection inside of Spider's thought patterns.
The childhood recall that Spider undergoes is presented in an unusual way which is difficult to explain. It isn't done in flashback format as such....more that Spider sort of implants himself simultaneously in his past and his present, almost as an onlooker yet at the same time participating in his memories as if they had been flung into a time-warp and brought into the now.
Spider the film does require some focus and concentration in order to work out what is supposed to be current and what is supposed to be Spider the man's past, but once you hook into this method of backtracking his life, it becomes easier to follow and understand.
This film is an intense journey inside of the mind of a schizophrenic, piecing together the childhood incidents which probably caused Spider's condition. I feel such to have been handled in a unique way, in that it delves underneath the shroud of psychotic mental illness, making sense of and offering an explanation regarding a schizophrenic's delusions. Although Spider is definitely very disturbed, as I watched the film, I could almost understand his various obsessions and get inside of his view of the world.
Although there are no special effects in Spider, some very subtle, clever camera angles are used, which project a slight shift in perspective and offer a good idea of how Spider the man is interpreting what he sees around him. I feel it is particularly important, when attempting to gain some insight into the mind of a schizophrenic, to remember that they don't see anything that the rest of us aren't seeing....merely that their perception is on another level, causing them to make different sense of the same things. Spider as a film puts this across so brilliantly, giving the receptive viewer a different angle on the illness and its effects.
Much of Spider the man's mumbling is indistinct, but I don't feel that to be an issue or a fly in the ointment...I believe such is done deliberately, simply in order to convey an ordinary, common symptom of schizophrenia, and it isn't important to work out what Spider is saying to himself, as such is of no consequence to the storyline and should be taken simply as the mutterings and ramblings of a seriously mentally ill person. What Spider is mumbling makes perfect sense to him though.
Some of the best scenes in the film are where both adult and child Spider mingle inside of the adult Spider's recall, and I should say here that Bradley Hall did a marvellous job in his role of playing a child who, due to various events in his family home, becomes more and more unbalanced.
Spider is a very enlightening, thought-provoking film which does require some concentration. It is by no means a blockbuster, and certainly isn't a slave to cinematic sensationalism or fashion. It is a brilliantly characterised, superbly performed psychological drama which is presented in an unusual way. Some may feel that it is slow-moving, but for me it didn't come across that way in the slightest, simply because right from the first frame I treated it as a quiet film which focuses on everyday life, with no glamour, no humour and no glossiness. I suppose in a way, it might come across as having a play-like more than a film-like quality.
In summary, I can honestly say this probably is one of the very best films I've ever seen, and I thoroughly recommend it to anybody who likes a touch of class and who appreciates a quietly gritty, perhaps even depressing in parts, yet fascinating and enlightening journey into a mentally-ill man's thought processes and how he copes with them.
At the time of writing, Spider can be purchased from Amazon as follows:-
New: from £2.99 to £29.99
Used: from £2.95 to £17.66
Some items on Amazon are available for free delivery within the UK, but where this doesn't apply, a £1.26 charge should be added to the above figures.
Thanks for reading!
~~ Also published on Ciao under my CelticSoulSister user name ~~
An out of date train pulls into a station, and the passengers disembark. We see a slightly confused man, the last off the train, walk off the platform and onto the streets of what we must believe is London. He wanders the streets, analysing the pavements. The streets seem alien to us, yet also familiar. Many typical sights of British streets are here, yet they also seem wrong. Too arttificial, too uniform, and despite the amount of roads, a car is never seen. This leaves us feeling alienated from the character we're seeing on screen, and from the film itself. I have no doubt at all that this was an intentional move. David Cronenberg likes weird. The director of eXistenZ, Crash, The Dead Zone and Naked Lunch likes to play with his audience, distorting what they accept to be normal. He's done this in nearly all of his films, and Spider is no different. It may be a more simplistic tale than the others, but it still has the ability to get under the skin and bother the viewer. The man we saw getting off the train was Spider Cleg (Ralph Fiennes), a man released to a halfway house from the asylum where he has spent most of his life. While there though, his mind begins to fall back into thoughts of his childhood, and the events that led to his original internment. He recalls an incident involving his mother (Miranda Richardson) and father (Gabriel Byrne) that changed his entire life and shaped him into the disturbed man that he is today. From that, the story may sound like nothing particularly special, but in reality, the story itself is not the important part here. Of course it's necessary, but the whole film is an exercise in psychological study more than anything else. We're curious to see what has affected Spider so much, but it's not as important as how he is dealing wi
th it in the present. What we're essentially seeing is a man losing his mind, slowly and carefully, right in front of us. Cronenberg isn't afraid to show us this, and it's one of things that makes Spider just slightly more disturbing. We're watching him not with concern, as relating with the character is near impossible, but with fascination. The setting of the alien London only adds to this effect, as we're seeing an enviroment that seems familiar, yet also entirely strange at the same time. Yes, the architecture is quite clearly London, and the train station has the activity one would expect, but beyond that, we are completely lost. The streets are largely deserted, there are no cars, and hardly anyone walking around, and never have gas works been quite so ominous. This could be the world where the film is set, but personally I believe that Cronenberg is presenting to us the world from Spider's eyes, where these things are still there, but he is completely oblivious to them. For the viewer to be forced into seeing the world through the eyes of someone who is not stable mentally, this can lead to the film seeming incredibly disjointed. Cast wise, everybody is spot on. Ralph Fiennes is particularly convincing as Spider. I can't recall a better depiction of someone going gradually insane on screen, yet he manages to do it in such a way that you want to keep watching rather then turn away, which is often the case in these kinds of things. Gabriel Byrne is also great as Bill, Spider's father, who manages to take his character beyond the one dimension that it could have easily been. The most interesting performance though comes from Miranda Richardson, who manages to play Spider's mother, his father's second wife and the owner of the halfway house. That she could play three entirely different roles is i
ncredible in itself, that she could play them with such differences that one might not even realise she is playing them all is nothing less than masterful acting. However, there are a few problems with the film, and how much these things bother you will ultimately influence your enjoyment of the film. It is difficult to hear most of what Spider says as he mumbles to an extent that is almost unheard of. I turned on the subtitles just to understand what he was saying, which was somewhat annoying at times. The other major issue for some will be the pace of film. Spider moves incredibly slowly, and I expect many will find this to be just a little too boring to want to keep with. Personally this didn't bother me, as I enjoy things with little pace, but it's going to be irritating to a number of viewers, particularly those more at home with the latest Hollywood blockbuster. All in all, I found Spider to be a fascinating character study of an interesting character. The setting of the film and the characters make it particularly enjoyable as it brings a tone that is entirely different to most films of it's type. While there are minor quibbles that may annoy some people, those looking for an excellent psychological drama could do worse than to give it a look.
In a scene that will be imediately alienating to users of British Rail, but will seem completely normal to American viewers, a train that these days would never use St Pancras' station, London, pulls up on the far right platform. A whole host of people get off, some of whom cannot avoid looking at the film crew. Just when we're hanging by a spider's thread wondering who or what our interest here is, out comes Dennis Cleg. And so begins the latest David Cronenberg movie. Keeping well away from all the medical/technical horror films of his younger days (Scanners, The Fly) he has got involved in Patrick McGrath to adapt the latter's novel Spider for the big screen. It is a testament to the film that you will want to read the book afterwards, if only to see what techniques the author used to originate those used on the big screen. Dennis Cleg is played by Ralph Fiennes. He's a bit of a sad case, wearing grubby clothes, owning and carrying very little, sporting a haircut that can be called Jamie Oliver at the best of times, and when talking, which is exceedingly rarely, gibbering away to himself in the quietest of mumbles. He seems to have half a clue as to where he is going, which at the moment is following a scrap of paper's instructions to a very unwelcoming house. This house will be his home for the next few days/weeks/months/who knows - as another inhabitant says, "I never expected to be here long, either". The establishment is a half-way house for people who have been in a mental home, and are being eased into society. They can come and go from this house, and get fed and bathed there, but have to ignore the fact there is no decoration, no privacy, and the unappealing Mrs Wilkinson (Lynn Redgrave) hovering over everyone, forever rattling her key chain. Cleg gets into his room, and immediately we start to see more of his quirks. He wants to wear four shirts all the time, and to not speak,
and needs to keep his most private things in a sock down the front of his trousers, and to keep his most private thoughts and reckonings jotted down in a small notebook that is already crammed with what looks like alien short-hand. What saw Cleg in the mental home in the first place? How successful will he be on his own, traipsing round the streets and canalside of what proves to be his childhood? How will he bear fellow 'inmate' Terrence (John Neville) wittering on about scorpions and death all the time? What bearing does the lattice-work of the huge gasometer right outside his bedroom window have on things? Why is this film called Spider anyway? These questions will bear examination throughout the film. Cleg clearly is a man with a past, and indeed, once settled in at Mrs Wilkinson's, he goes to visit it - literally. He actually walks up to his own childhood home's kitchen window, lifts up the net curtain, and peers in at his mother and his younger self, preparing dinner for his father to have - when or if he can be fetched from the local ale house. There is clearly a tragic youth for this young Cleg, whose nickname, courtesy of his habits with string of forming cat's cradles and giant webs across his room ceiling is Spider, and who is played by Bradley Hall. The adult Cleg can see it all from where he cowers in the corner of the room, speaking the lines of his younger self, and of his beloved mother - and not so much of his father's. The plot of the past is something theediscerning is loath to discuss in too much detail, for it has much bearing on the present Cleg. Suffice it to be put on record that Dad is Gabriel Byrne, Mum is Miranda Richardson, and there is another woman... The whole climaxes in an encounter between Dad and Mum and said woman, and the sharp end of a spade. Were this a linear narrative, we would then see the repercussions with the young boy, and his ensuing coming-t
o-terms, and actions. Then, many years later, we would have just one scene in the psychiatric hospital, followed by his release to the home by the gasometer. However, this isn't a linear film - in the same way a spider cannot hope to form a cobweb from left to right, there is no hope of following such a regimented structure, with so many strands of thought to consider. When we have seen the past for Spider, we are still very much interested in the present and future for Cleg. If we thought he was in trouble when he visited the past, then wait until you see what happens when the past visits him... Cronenberg really controls his style and tone here to make a completely leisurely narrative. Not worried about huge dramatic set pieces, or psychological thriller/horror trappings, he skirts them all and makes what for some will be the slowest moving film they see all year - regardless of whether they caught up with Solaris or not. The good news is, this works. We do not need the histrionics a much lesser movie maker could lend to this story. Instead we get a grand mise-en-scene on a very low budget, a completely relaxed feel from being in the hands of a powerfully told story, and superlative acting. Ralph Fiennes is well-known for turning on the power when he needs to, and walking away with awards. So why was Spider overlooked? He has very little to do on the surface, but below it all is a very dark hollow of a character, which must have been over-powering to have to portray for the duration of the film's shooting. You get the feeling Fiennes knows every word of what he mutters, every syllable of the gibberish Cleg writes, even if we have no clue. Miranda Richardson is equally superb, and the Oscars were spoilt this year by her absence. It must be said here that there is a Lynchian effect going on with the film, and so Richardson is not playing just the one character. However her trampy "fat tart&
quot; is exactly as required - flashing her breast at Spider minutes before you realise who it is playing the role. It could be called a revelation, but ever since she turned all us teenage boys on as Blackadder's Queenie (don't deny it) she has beaten our expectations. Gabriel Byrne as the father is also brilliant. Again, he has little to say, and some of it - when he gets fruity coming home of a night, or instead leaving for the pub - seems to be delivered in a very cartoonish "rhubarb, rhubarb" way, but this technique works, and inactivity in the vocal department does not mean there is not a portrayal of a certain kind of British man coming to the fore very well. The rest of the ensemble is great, with some caveats - Redgrave with her slightly dodgy East End accent is mostly good, Terrence in the home a decently bewildered cameo - and how important is that movement of the head that might be seen to send Cleg upstairs?! The other men and women - just a few, there are few named parts - are very decent throughout, but the youngster Hall as Spider is great. Taking control completely of what would be to him an alien time, where boys were Brylcreemed and toyless and when "bloody" was a strong swear word, he really suggests we have a British Hayley Joel Osment on our hands. Less than ten when filming, let him mature and we'll see how far he can go... The music you also feel is on an easy ride, for you are very close to the end before actually remembering Howard Shore was credited with it. And at that stage, apart for some childish humming, you cannot recall any. What you then experience is a very muted and odd score on strings and gentle woodwind. And we must not forget McGrath for adapting the book in these name-checks. Well, judgment must be reserved until the book has been read, but the screenplay fills your mind completely, with no thought of how long the film seems to be, or anythi
ng. That is mostly down to Cronenberg, as well, who steps out of his background and common cinematic milieu, and makes a distinctly British film much better than we can. Great, huh? Yes, it is great. There is no need to rush a strong sensation like this film, and anyone without the patience to explore the whole characterisation and nuance of the telling really is missing out. It is most inaccurate to say there is a lack anywhere in this film - there is mystery, there is romance (of a sort!), there is humour (when Spider, Terrence and a third man get to see the countryside) and there is horror - just wait for the scene with the beautiful female face and the hammer... The spider themes are often there, but never over-laboured. They crop up at the conclusion of the scene in the mental home, and in the past and denouement, and on the whole just go to prove this is a very literary film. It is also highly effective for those with patience. It must be fairly stated that not everyone will like this, but theediscerning here is going to be very stern and say that they really need to re-examine the film, for he is concerned they are neglecting a near masterpiece.
Spider is the latest film by cult director David Cronenberg, a film-maker best known for making films such as Scanners, Videodrome, The Fly and Naked Lunch, that vary between bloody horror and what can only be described as weirdness. His more recent films haven't fitted so neatly into those genres though, and this latest is most unrecognisable as being his work. Spider is the nickname of Dennis Cleg (Ralph Fiennes), a middle aged man who has just been released from an asylum, and makes his way to a half-way house somewhere in London. He presents himself to Mrs. Wilkinson (Lynn Redgrave) who runs the place, and with the aid of a letter and some barely intelligible mumbling is given a room. The first thing he does is find a hiding place for his notebook. As he goes about his life in the half-way house and walking in the surrounding streets, he often reads or writes in his notebook, and we begin to see scenes from his childhood played out. The adult Dennis watches on from the corners or outside the windows, seeing his 10 year old self living with his mother (Miranda Richardson) and father (Gabriel Byrne). These are not flashbacks so much as visualisations of the memories that Dennis is reliving, his own rationalisation of events and the effect they have on him. The most immediately striking thing about Spider is Ralph Fiennes performence. Despite barely having any meaningful or understandable lines, he is at the centre of events, and his shambling hulking presence in potraying an obviously disturbed man effectively captures your attention. The overall atmosphere of dark foreboding is expertly evoked by Cronenberg, and you do feel drawn into Spider's world. As a character study of a mentally ill man at a particular point in his life, this film is superb. However, even for a relatively short film such as this, it needs to be more than a character study to remain compelling for its full length. The plot interest comes from trying to u
nravel the true meaning behind the gradually revealed memories, as it becomes clear that what we are being shown is not the absolute truth. Despite faultless performances from Gabriel Byrne and Miranda Richardson, there just isn't enough substance to the story we're being shown, and what substance there is holds no real surprises. The nature of the truth that the film is trying to slowly reveal is just too obvious, and with that tension of the unknown gone, all the atmosphere and character of the film is wasted, and instead it becomes slow and dull as you wait for events to play themselves out. Cronenberg shows himself here to be a master at portraying atmosphere, and elicits an extremely impressive performance from Ralph Fiennes, but without a compelling story to back these things up we are left with a film which is too slow, too obvious, and just too dull.