BFI London Film Festival Review: Carnage (2011)

Jodie Foster, John C. Reilly, Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz in Carnage BFI

Roman Polanski returns with “Carnage”, an adaptation of Yasmina Reza’s play “The God of Carnage”, a sharp satire which digs at the hypocrisy that often lurks behind the façade of middle-class liberalism. For what is very much a performance piece, Polanski assembles a stellar cast, with Kate Winslet, Jodie Foster, John C Reilly and Christoph Waltz as initially intelligent and reasonable people increasingly at war.

Set in Brooklyn, the drama revolves around two couples who meet up to discuss an altercation between their young sons, which resulted in one of them having two teeth broken. The parents of the apparent aggressor, Nancy and Alan (Winslet and Waltz) arrive at the apartment of the victim’s parents, Penelope and Michael (Foster and Reilly), at first quite willing to admit their child’s guilt, though a few misplaced remarks derail their civilised search for a solution. Things quickly get out of hand, and once the whisky starts to flow the behaviour of the foursome worsens, and they viciously turn against each other as their friendly masks slip.

Jodie Foster and Kate Winslet in Carnage (2011) Movie Image

Even if unfamiliar with the source material, it’s pretty obvious from the start that “Carnage” was based upon a play, with Polanski retaining the basic one set, cast of four approach. Quite skilfully, he turns this into a real strength, and the film is a masterpiece of economic, uncluttered direction, with a short running time of just an hour and a quarter and a sharp script which resists the temptation to pad things out as such adaptations often do. Rushing along at a surprisingly gripping pace, the film has a wonderfully fiendish sense of inevitable escalation, and the viewer soon comes to anticipate and dread the next botched attempt by one of the couples to end the disastrous negotiation, knowing full well that something else will go horribly wrong. This successfully allows Polanski to get around the essential artificiality of the setup, using it to heighten the tension and sense of claustrophobia, with the main thrust of the plot not being as to which of the couples will win the argument, but which will emerge less ruined.

Since none of the four characters are even remotely likeable, the film gets a great deal of gleeful, spiteful fun out of their rapid exposing, and is frequently hilarious in appropriately nasty fashion. However, where its true power to entertain and disturb lies is in the fact that all four are still very recognisably human, and while clearly written as obnoxious caricatures, they remain believable through to the end. As a result, the film is not only incredibly funny, but more importantly is comic in a truly biting and squirm inducing manner, with a great many memorably acidic lines and moments of extraordinarily malicious dialogue – all the more so for their cruel honesty.

Jodie Foster and Christoph Waltz in Carnage (2011) Movie Image

Of course, to a large extent any film like this is reliant upon the efforts of its cast, and thankfully the big name leads turn in excellent performances, and really manage to nail their roles. Although unsympathetic, all four are hilarious and manage to edge just the right side of going too over the top, keeping their aggression and contempt simmering, sticking to smug sniping until the final act hysteria. Waltz and Reilly in particular are on magnificent form, and if anything seem to be having a little too much of a good time themselves, which of course works to make the film even more enjoyable.

Without having seen the original stage play, it’s difficult to say how “Carnage” rates as an adaptation, though judged on its own merits it stands not only as one of the finest comedies of the year, but as one of Polanski’s most accomplished outings for some time. Uncomfortable viewing in the best possible way, it should go down very well indeed with anyone looking for a bit of good old fashioned schadenfreude.

Roman Polanski (director) / Yasmina Reza, Roman Polanski (screenplay)
CAST: Jodie Foster … Penelope Longstreet
Kate Winslet … Nancy Cowan
Christoph Waltz … Alan Cowan
John C. Reilly … Michael Longstreet
Eliot Berger … Ethan

Buy Carnage on DVD