Spare, sad, lonely, and beautiful, Spider
may be Cronenberg’s best film to date. It’s certainly his most moving.
Much of the credit for that must go to Ralph Fiennes, for a performance both deeply sympathetic and compelling. Lshap
noted (during a lovely lunch in Toronto) that Fiennes (and, by extension, the film?) doesn’t bring the character to
you; you, the viewer, have to go to it. -Absolutely. There are few of the visceral shocks of some of Cronenberg’s previous work. Instead, Cronenberg and Fiennes build both film and character with quiet conviction and empathy.
, it’s a slow piece, but not “ponderous”. Thank God, it’s also not “entertaining” in the histrionic style of films such as Girl, Interrupted
and A Beautiful Mind
. (I know that isn’t what you meant, but...) It is
fascinating. For all the bleakness of the story, I didn’t find the film itself depressing. True, it’s not a joyful
film, but it was made with such tenderness, insight, and humanity.
Fiennes – in a courageous and brilliant performance – gets right in Spider’s skin: complete with yellow, thickened, fingernails, nicotine-stained teeth, sallow complexion, weedy physique, and the stoop-shouldered, awkward, shambling gait of a man whose mind is barely up to the task of sending messages to its body.
mentioned the visual motifs in the film that create an “overbearing” and “visually crushing” environment. In contrast, what struck me most were the images of emptiness, cold, and loss: the empty streets; the halfway-house utterly bleached of colour; barren rooms; interiors with only the wannest rays of sunshine; the painfully small suitcase, filled with the pitiful detritus of a thirty-year old life; a bath, quarter-filled with chill and rusty water. If this was meant to have been a new beginning for Spider (see joker
’s ref. to Fiennes “lying foetally in amniotic bath water”), it’s turning out to be a stillbirth.
And there are also, sometimes a bit too obviously, images of disjunction and disconnection: the broken mirror (explicitly referencing Spider’s fractured psyche, film publicity uses Fienne’s image reflected in the broken mirror); the unravelling thread; the broken jigsaw (ah yes, - Spider is able to piece it together, but can’t face the final picture).
Possible thematic spoilers
When, with a shock, we realize just how unreliable our titular narrator is, that knowledge is tempered by a first glimpse of paternal love. When Gabriel Byrne’s Bill Cleg asks his son, “Why are you so angry with us?”, one can’t help but hear the notes of affection and concern, under his baffled and uncomprehending query.
The few other moments in the film when we see kindness and acceptance given to the adult Spider are important. They’re short scenes, but help to ground the film in an external reality, and offer the possibility of connection in such a broken life; and, of course, briefly relieve the bleakness. One, is the shared moment of wry humour during farm work at the institution. Another, the companionship that Terrence (John Neville’s character) offers at the halfway house: he’s “dotty”, but sane enough to recognize a man in pain. The third, is the grave and sympathetic watchfulness of the warden at the farm.
For the Spiders of the world, the mentally ill, the outcasts, homeless, unloved; or outsiders; these moments give an affirmation of our common humanity: you are not alone.
It’s a paradox of this film: that, given the subject of the film - a man so deeply isolated - it breaks down the boundaries between “him” and “us”. The circumstances of Spider’s life are ones that I hope none of us share, but, in this haunting portrait of a deeply lonely and pained soul, Cronenberg and Fiennes bring us a measure of understanding.
A few final notes of praise: for the production design, and for the rest of the cast, but especially for Miranda Richardson (it took me the longest time to believe that she’d taken on triple
roles!) and – in a smaller, single role- John Neville.
Leaving the theatre, a phrase from Eliot’s “Preludes” kept running through my mind. I’d incorrectly remembered the first line as finishing in “lonely” (which certainly fits better with the film), but here it is:
...The notion of some infinitely gentle/Infinitely suffering thing