Shifting landscape for emotional thriller
Viggo Mortensen and Hossein Amini. Picture: Supplied

When acclaimed screenwriter Hossein Amini (Drive, Wings of the Dove, Snow White and the Huntsman) set out to make his directing debut by adapting Patricia Highsmith's 1964 crime novel The Two Faces of January, he didn't look to the best-known big-screen version of the legendary crime writer's work, Anthony Minghella's The Talented Mr Ripley.

Rather he went back to an earlier adaptation of the tale of an impoverished American who kills an indolent rich boy and takes over his identity, Rene Clement's Plein Soleil or Purple Noon (1960), the film that launched the career of Gallic dreamboat Alain Delon.

"I like Minghella's movie but it is a little too pretty for the entire running time," said the Iranian-born British writer-turned-director over the phone from Sydney.

"In Purple Noon the shift in the look of the film, from the classicism of the early stages to the more ragged look of the second half, reflects the mental state of the increasingly desperate Tom Ripley."

Amini says he wanted to achieve something similar in his adaptation of The Two Faces of January, Highsmith's 1964 psychological thriller about a wealthy American couple and a handsome young expat conman who become entangled in a web of desire and intrigue in early 1960s Greece.

When crooked investment adviser Chester McFarland (Viggo Mortensen) accidentally kills a detective hot on his trail, his wife's equally duplicitous tour guide Rydal (Oscar Isaac) jumps into help, taking the couple to Crete while they wait for forged passports that he has arranged.

However, as with all Highsmith tales, the twists and turns of the narrative are less important than the psychology of the characters, with Chester increasingly disturbed by his wife Colette's (Kirsten Dunst) close relationship with Rydal and the two men seeing something of themselves in each other (the perennial Highsmith concern with doubles and homo-eroticism).

"I wanted to start off with a picture-postcard-perfect version of Athens. And as the characters start to unravel the landscape and the look of the film starts to alter. I see it as a journey of landscape as well as of character," he says.

Indeed, Amini had other films of the period in mind, such as the wrenching marital studies of Jean-Luc Godard (specifically Le Mepris) and Michelangelo Anton- ioni's great trilogy (L'Avventura, La Notte and L'Eclisse).

"I rewatched these films before I began work on Two Faces because of the way they capture the silence that settles on a marriage that is breaking down, the desperation of people falling in love and falling out of love."

Adapting The Two Faces of January has been a career-long obsession for Amini, who first read the book more than 20 years ago while at university. "It was loosely plotted, inconsistent at times, often illogical but somehow the story and its flawed characters got under my skin," he says.

"It was the only book I've ever adapted that I felt compelled to direct, mostly because I recognised so many of the characters' emotional contradictions and shortcomings in myself. Highsmith has the uncanny ability to shine a light on parts of ourselves we'd rather hide, especially the indignity of human emotions and behaviour.

"Her characters are liars, conmen, drunks: they become irrationally jealous, paranoid and often stupid. Yet these very flaws and contradictions are what make them so painfully human and relatable."

Amini was also drawn to the psychological struggle between Chester and Rydal, who as the film evolves become more wary of each other because they realise how alike they are (Chester even looks like Rydal's father).

"I love the idea of the psychological battle between two men," says Amini, who cites the Pacino/De Niro face-off in Heat as an influence. "Even though one will have to destroy the other there is a respect, almost a love between them."

Despite his success as a screenwriter in both the British and American film industries and the critical and box-office triumph for the previous Highsmith adaptation The Talented Mr Ripley, Amini struggled to realise his passion project and make his directing debut.

Things started to fall into place when the enigmatic Lord of the Rings star Mortensen agreed to play Chester, a coup that Amini pulled off with surprising ease.

He flew to Madrid, where the very un-Hollywood Mortensen lives, and expected to be left waiting for several days while the actor found time in his schedule to attend a meeting or things were OK with his astrologer, which is routine for big movie stars.

"When I arrived at my hotel he phoned to see if I was OK. Then he walked over to take me out to dinner. He was perfectly lovely and down to earth.

"And he doesn't work that often, so securing Viggo's services was quite a coup and certainly helped to get the film made."

The West Australian

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