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USA 2002
Directed by
David Cronenberg
99 minutes
Rated MA

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
4.5 stars


Synopsis: It is the 1980s and Dennis Cleg (Ralph Fiennes) a.k.a.Spider, has just left a psychiatric hospital. He arrives in the East End of London where he has accommodation at a run-down men’s hostel. This is also the area in which he grew up and Cleg is here to relive his past and the troubles that brought him to his present state.

If you’re thinking of attending the latest Cronenberg film, his sixteenth, because you’re a fan of creepy-crawlies and repulsive exudations, forget it. There is plenty of creepiness and repulsiveness here, it’s just that it’s not of the insect or extra-terrestrial kind. It’s of that peculiarly English type of squalor, a legacy of  Dickensian London inhabited by the central character, a lost and deeply woundeded soul who is on a quest to unravel the causes of his condition. This is not Loachian kitchen-sink realism, however. Think of the miserable imaginary universe of David Lynch’s post-industrial dystopia, Eraserhead, and you’ll be a lot closer to the mark.

Spider is not an easy film to watch but it is a remarkable one. That it’s not easy is its achievement. Patrick McGrath scripted this from his own novel and a goodly portion of the credit must reside here. The weaving of the past and present strands of the story is compelling as Spider comes to discover the truth about himsef.

Cronenberg’s transposition is extraordinary. In the hands of a Hollywood director the script could still have been murdered with any number of conventional devices but Cronenberg has stripped back anything inessential to Spider’s barrenly obsessive world - part-fantasy, part-memory, but most of all, hopelessly estranged. Yes, there are visual metaphors at work here, most persistently, those of the spider’s web and the puzzle, but they are largely unforced and aptly handled. There are scenes of remarkable pathos and occasional bitterness but never are they signposted the way Hollywood requires. We discover the roots of Cleg’s misery with him. The production design and Peter Suschitzky’s cinematography effectively establish and reinforce the grim bleakness of the physical and mental world that Cleg inhabits.

Ralph Fiennes gives an understated but convincing performance in hte lead role but Miranda Richardson, in a double role, is remarkable in embodying the virgin/whore duality by which Cleg remembers his mother. Gabriel Byrne is less effective as the abusive father although this is, at least in part, is due to Cronenberg not establishing enough Oedipal competitiveness between father and son.

It is a credit to Cronenberg, his creative team and their backers that this film got made. It’s a fine example of contemporary cinematic art and an outstanding portrayal of one individual’s subjectivity.

FYI: There are resemblances between this film and the Australian underground classic Bad Boy Byubby (1993) 




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