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Introduction
On the face of it, you’d have to question just what David Cronenberg was doing directing a low budget psychological drama based in the lower reaches of London’s East End. The man behind Videodrome and Crash does indeed appear an odd choice to helm this tale of a lonely schizophrenic revisiting his old haunts but, unlike in Spider’s journey, all will become clear...

Spider
Movie
Dennis ‘Spider’ Cleg (Fiennes) is returning to his roots. Released from an asylum due to the state’s insufficient funding for his secure detention, the shy schizophrenic has to make his way to an East End halfway house run by the no-nonsense Mrs Wilkinson (Redgrave). Once there, the chain-smoking habitual mumbler sets out to relive the painful parts of his childhood, in particular the pre-puberty period involving his father’s entwined relationship with his brash mistress and Spider’s dutiful mother.

Recording and re-recording his experiences in his privately peculiar writing, scribbled ceaselessly in a battered old notebook, Spider tries to rationalise the possible reasoning behind the tangled triangle of adults that dominate both the past and present of his life in a web that he becomes increasingly unable to unravel...

Here we are back to the vexed question of “why Conenberg?” In fact, the Canadian auteur of body horror turns out to be just the man for the job in essaying this deeply flawed character’s struggle to separate one kind of reality from another. In the central allegory of the piece, Spider is caught in his own emotional web and, much like an unfortunate captive in his namesake’s trap, the more he battles the more deeply enmeshed in the mire does he become.

There are many such allegorical concepts in the Patrick McGrath’s script and Cronenberg’s skilful direction, in both greater and lesser degrees, so as to create an exceptionally layered narrative in lyrical and visual terms. Similar in concept to Seth Brundle’s cogitation over what exactly is human and what is fly in The Fly or, perhaps more succinctly, William Burrough’s semi-delirious deliberations in Naked Lunch, Cronenberg manages to wring every moment of despair, pathos and light humour for all it’s worth while allowing it to appear forced when doing so.

Spider
Even so, little of this is possible without an outstanding central performance from Ralph Fiennes. Not once will you catch Fiennes acting, so subsumed in his stripped-down semi-mute character is he, and he puts many recent ‘rent-a-mannerism’ turns by the like of Pacino, de Niro and Hoffman to shame. Byrne too is excellent, Richardson makes a decent fist of a tricky trio of roles (replete with decidedly different accents) and Redgrave makes for a lively counterpoint despite never descending to simple scenery chewing.

Cronenberg’s use of London locations is inspired and, in its own understated way, attention to detail in the set design as the focus for Spider’s flashbacks matches anything of that in Naked Lunch. Inanimate objects with hitherto hidden significance, such as old the gasworks, take on a menacing aspect all of their own.

And the ending?  Without wishing to give the game away, for the journey is perhaps more important than its destination, it’ll be enough to have you reaching for the DVD remote to rewind and watch the whole movie again in a different light.

Video
Cronenberg employs a muted palette to reinforce the austerity of the immediate post-rationing era of the 1950’s and the thickly grimy squalor of Spider’s 1980’s halfway house; a vibrant transfer (other than for the two brief dream interludes where colours are indeed striking) is not to be expected.

That said, shadow detail and black levels are exemplary during the numerous nighttime sequences and the transfer does very well to capture the foggy haziness of the various smoky pub interiors without macro-blocking. Fleshtones are very well rendered too, particularly with regard to the gaudy caked make-up of the Yvonne Wilkinson character.

Audio
A single Dolby Digital 5.1 track is provided; this is never truly tested throughout the film’s duration although, to be fair, nothing onscreen requires it to be so. Very little emanates from the rear, except for the seldom strains of Howard Shore’s spartan score and there’s little channel separation until the pub scenes where patrons’ chatter and the clinking of glasses is satisfactorily enveloping.

Spider
In fact, and I dare say at director Cronenberg’s insistence, the soundtrack is eerily empty and devoid of any warmth. Fiennes’ delivery of Spider’s hesitant stuttering dialogue feels uncomfortably confined from the centre speaker and this acts as an effective metaphor for the character trapped in his own world; this is definitely a more pertinent soundtrack than it would initially suggest.

Extras
With the lack of a director’s commentary the main extra is a collection of Interviews, the longest of which is Cronenberg’s at just 6 minutes, which are outlined as the following:
David Cronenberg (6:20): the director discusses how the character differs from the depiction in the novel, the challenge of approaching such a film based solely in the first person perspective, the universality of Spider’s struggle to connect to a wider world, his working relationship with Fiennes and the relation of this project to his other work.

Ralph Fiennes (3:30): the leading man expounds on his working relationship with his director, the extent to which Cronenberg allowed him to experiment when creating Spider’s screen persona and illustrates the inherent danger in making his performance too gimmicky.

Gabriel Byrne (2:05): the Irish actor doesn’t mention the smoothing out of his usual brogue in his performance but does express the difficulty he faced in approaching the role where the audience’s perception of him is entirely predicated by Spider’s imagined or real impression of who Bill Cleg really was.

Miranda Richardson (1:00): the talented actress explains her role and the significance of the mother/son relationship in the film.

Spider
Lynn Redgrave (3:35): the bubbly grandee of the Redgrave/Richardson acting dynasty reveals her enthusiasm for the project and her attraction to identifying with Spider’s predicament as an emotionally damaged human being.

Catherine Bailey (2:30): The film’s executive producer, one of many incidentally, details why she chose the project and why she always believed incipient feeling that Cronenberg should be pursued as  the man for the job.

Patrick McGrath (3:38): The movie’s writer outlines the origin of the name ‘Spider’, the relatively smooth transition from first person novel to third person screenplay when following Cronenberg’s notes and the dynamic of his brief association with the director on the film.

All the above interview segments seem to have been individually culled from a much more abundant mine of material that could have been included. Cronenberg’s articulate offering begs for a greater duration, as do the contributions of Fiennes, Byrne and most definitely Redgrave. Richardson strikes the sole sour note by looking bafflingly bored which could elucidate why her segment is so short.

A couple of Theatrical Trailers accompany the interview segments although essentially this is the same trailer employing two different voiceovers. The first example has an U.K. accented voiceover that neatly demonstrates the offbeat subtlety of the movie; the second carries a wholly inappropriate American accent that, despite utilising the same words, promotes an entirely different perception of the film’s content.

The menus are not animated but they are scored and themed with some intelligent designs incorporating the strands of spider webs into the various options.

Spider
Overall
An impressively thought-provoking film that deserves more than mere critics’ praise to be conferred on Cronenberg’s direction and Fiennes’ acting, it’s a shame that a technically impressive DVD is marred by such a slender selection of extras. An intense alternative to popcorn fodder, ‘Spider’ is an awe-inspiring dedication to a Canadian helmer honing the best of homegrown British talent and should be on the ‘One To Watch’ list of every film aficionado.


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