It’s easy to see why Roman Polanski wanted to direct an adaptation of the hugely successful French stage play, God of Carnage. Many of the controversial director’s lifelong artistic obsessions are present and correct in both subject and situation. Two seemingly civilised, class-conscious New York couples meet in the Brooklyn apartment of one – the Longstreets (Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly) – to discuss an incident involving their eleven year-old son, who has been injured in a playground fight by the son of the Cowans (Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz). Over the course of the subsequent seventy-nine minutes, played out in real-time, the two couples never get further than the hallway outside. Fuelled by alcohol and long pent-up personal, marital and filial resentments instead – as well as a constantly ringing mobile phone and some dubious cobbler – all four descend into a viciously unsympathetic, comical shouting match of hypocritical barbs and evaporating civility, until they are pushed into all-out warfare by a genuinely surprising moment of social faux pas (which is a spoiler to give away) that would make many people feel mortified if it happened in front of their closest friends, let alone complete strangers.
From the off we’re instructed by the spiky, sarcastic script not to feel much sympathy for either couple. In their own distinctive ways, they’re all pretty annoying people, thanks largely to four pitch perfect, consummately enjoyable performances. Jodie Foster’s politically correct non-fiction writer, whose righteous indignation at her son’s lost teeth blinkers her completely to the Lord of the Flies’ realities of childhood fighting; is paired with husband John C. Reilly’s monstrous cruelty to his daughter’s pet hamster, and his placating attempt to “dress and act” like a middle-class liberal, which in reality is anathema to his actual blue-collar attitudes and world view. Their relationship is set against the visiting wealthier couple and parents of the “attacker”: Christoph Waltz’s laconic, disinterested lawyer, whose constant conversations on his mobile phone help to ramp up the tensions (yet who possibly garners the most sympathy from Polanski); and his wife Kate Winslet, whose description of herself as a “wealth-manager” suggests a life spent frittering her husband’s earnings away while gradually going insane with boredom.
The film’s modus operandi is simple: put them all in the claustrophobic “prison” of a cosy New York apartment (much as Polanski has done so spellbindingly before in films like Repulsion, The Tenant and Rosemary’s Baby) wind them up and watch them go, without stopping to question why Waltz and Winslet – the Cowans – don’t ever leave once the matter of the children has been cursorily (if not sincerely) resolved. They certainly have more than one genuine opportunity to do so. After all, genius production designer Dean Tavoularis has thoughtfully provided a front door to his Paris soundstage recreation of a Brooklyn brownstone. Their staying is a conceit that can be overlooked in a stage play, yet in a movie the unreality of their remaining to harangue and become so critically self-absorbed only adds to the unavoidable “staginess” of the construction. Another problem is the abruptness of the ending, which may leave some viewers feeling high and dry, despite a visual resolution to the problems of the hamster and the children. The “carnage” between the Longstreets and the Cowans isn’t so much a highway to hell as a road to nowhere – the true island of the flies. But it’s all about the journey, and the humour makes it enjoyable enough.
Polanski gets as much as he can out of the script, which he co-adapted alongside original playwright Yasmina Reza from her own play. Yet it’s all a bit limited from the beginning by a timidity in the treatment of the situation dating right back to Reza’s initial intent. We only have to remember the great masterpieces of class satire made by Luis Bunuel, like The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, to see that if you’re going to attack people hiding behind a veneer of respectability, you might as well go all the way. There’s a sense in Carnage that both couples have been let off the hook, despite their temporary breakdown; they will return to their lives afterwards, albeit with more dissatisfaction at their lot. Reza’s plotting doesn’t really hold the courage of its convictions to really push the characters into change, of whatever kind (even Abigail’s Party managed a fatal heart attack) mainly because Reza is too self-consciously aware that the Cowans and the Longstreets will probably be coming to see her play, or Polanski’s film. But hey, a playwright and a director have gotta make a living, and it’s a fun ride, that’ll make you laugh out loud, as well as cringe, thanks to Polanski’s mischievous sense of fun.
Look out for a cameo from Polanski, and also his young son Elvis, who plays the “bully” with the stick. There’s only one character the seventy-eight year old maestro director could be, in what is essentially a four hander, so I’ll leave it to you to spot who he is.
Review in partnership with the Duke of Yorks Cinema