Patrick Marber must have been one bitter little bunny when he penned the stage version of Closer back in 1997. An intense, occasionally amusing, study of the infidelities and betrayals that take place between four Londoners, many of the lines that were rather hard and dark already, appear even starker and crueller on celluloid. Stripped of its theatrical context, the material leaves a rather unpleasant taste in the mouth.
Jude Law plays Dan, an obituary writer and aspiring novelist who jumps at the chance to play the hero when he sees an attractive young woman become involved in a road accident. Alice Ayres, the woman in question, is an American living in London who’s been working as a stripper and prefers to dodge questions about her past. Dan is drawn to Alice and, despite already being in a relationship, he makes a play for her. Successfully as it turns out, because in the next scene he is having his photo taken for the book jacket of a sexually explicit novel he’s written about their affair.
Anna, the woman who takes his picture, (played with subtle elegance by Julia Roberts) also finds herself attracted to him but she rejects his advances. Annoyed by her rebuttal, Dan pretends to be Anna in a sex chat room (the film’s funniest scene by far), thus drawing the fourth member of the quartet into the picture, Larry (played by Clive Owen) a slightly smarmy dermatologist.
Adapting his own work for the screen, there’s been little attempt by Marber to open up the action, Closer often feels rather stiff and, well, theatrical. Sudden shifts in time that worked on stage, now appear rather jarring; the key theme of Alice’s identity, once a major question, is now buried amidst the continually twisting plot strands.
There was always something a bit too neat about the ending of the stage play, but the significantly altered version presented here is no more satisfying. The film brings to mind Neil La Bute’s equally caustic The Shape of Things, a recent reworking of his own successful stage play, where the bile and brutality that captivated in the theatre just came across as tedious on the big screen.
Law is an often underrated actor and he’s especially proficient at conveying casual arrogance, yet here his portrayal of Dan is solid but unexciting, a bit of a let down. As Anna, Julia Roberts gives a subdued, measured performance though there’s something a bit wrong about hearing such nasty words coming from that mouth.
Having previously played Dan on stage, Clive Owen effortlessly steals the picture as Larry, making him both funny and believable. He’s the only character with which it’s really possible to engage, he humanises Marber’s dialogue and seems to lift the performances of his female co-stars in the scenes they share.
As the enigmatic Alice, Natalie Portman is flat and vapid, a real disappointment, though she still turns in a stronger performance than she’s managed so far in those Star Wars prequels. What happened to that precociously talented young thing who starred in Leon and Beautiful Girls?
Though the characters inhabit lavish central London apartments, it is at last refreshing to see a view of London not tainted by the Richard Curtis factor, as this is not a world where every major emotional confrontation takes place in front of a landmark, where fairy lights glitter in every tree and snowflakes fall on cue. Instead the action takes place in a reasonably recognisable version of the city – it’s just a shame the same can’t be said for the relationships on display in this ultimately unsatisfying film.