David Cronenberg’s latest offers Ralph Fiennes the type of character part most actors would die for – a mumbling, incoherent, shuffling ragamuffin released from a psychiatric hospital and sent to a half-way house in the neighbourhood he once called home.
Clegg, aka Spider, takes up residence in the austere, crumbling house with other damaged folk including ancient eccentric Terrence (John Neville), and soon falls foul of the iron will of caretaker/landlady Mrs Wilkinson, a terrifically square-jawed harridan played with panache by Lynn Redgrave.
Increasingly displaced from the real world, Spider finds solace in a past world of memories but also discovers sorrow and madness. He fills pages of a notebook with indecipherable scrawl and regresses to a troubled childhood – looking in on his past life and his relationship with his classy mother and brutish father (Miranda Richardson and Gabriel Byrne).
It is here where Cronenberg plays his trump card, replacing Richardson’s classy, restrained mother with a brassy tart from the local pub but allowing Richardson to play both roles, thus further clouding Spider’s already muddled young mind.
When he begins to see the whore’s face replacing that of Mrs Wilkinson, Spider’s descent into insanity is complete.
Spider is a compelling little film. Like much of Cronenberg’s past grotesque offerings – Dead Ringers, The Naked Lunch, Crash, eXistenZ – it is often confused, disturbed and maddeningly incomprehensible. Yet there is great humanity here, and a sensational performance from Fiennes, who barely speaks and who acts with his eyes and a pitiful, shuffling gait, in the title role.
There is also excellent work from Redgrave, Byrne and, particularly, Richardson, the latter essaying three very different roles: classy wife, East End gin slut and the Mrs Wilson doppelganger. One sequence, where she provides the frustrated Byrne with a stolen moment’s relief beneath a bridge, will have audiences everywhere cringing at the realism of its cold-hearted sexuality.
Based on the novel by Patrick McGrath, and adapted by McGrath with Cronenberg, Spider perfectly captures the era of post-war Britain – glum, grey, and unforgiving, a place where madness lurks just beneath the surface of everyday men and women. The whole milieu is aided expertly by the photography of Peter Suschitztky, Cronenberg’s regular cinematographer.
Cronenberg’s real triumph is in his casting, but spectacularly so in his choice of the courageous Fiennes, whose Shakespearian delivery and matinee idol looks are utterly camouflaged beneath Spider’s ramblings – both vocal and literal.
Spider is receiving a limited release. Catch it if you can.
Star rating: ***