There’s something uneasy about Roman Polanski, a man still wanted for statutory rape in the US, making a film about the apportioning of guilt in absentia. So perhaps it’s fitting that discomfort is the animating force in Carnage, an excruciating chamber comedy adapted from Yasmina Reza’s play.
Set in Penelope (Jodie Foster) and Michael’s (John C Reilly) well-appointed NY apartment, we start in friendly spirits, as Nancy (Kate Winslet) and Alan (Christoph Waltz) apologise for their son’s attack on their host’s child. We glimpse this minor playground assault, and its aftermath, at the film’s bookends, but otherwise there’s no break from this one, suffocating set – no matter how many times Waltz reaches for the door.
Soon coffee becomes espresso becomes scotch becomes Carnage, and home truths erupt like Winslet’s unexpected (but show-stopping) vomit. The cast are excellent, particularly the chaps, and the film whizzes past in peaks of exasperated laughter, but it remains intrinsically stagey.
The joke about Winslet and Waltz constantly trying and failing to leave presumably works a treat in the theatre – where they can’t – but here there’s simply no reason for them to stay once the bitter recriminations (and bile) start flying.
“What are you telling him this for?” asks Reilly (who seems to be trapped on the set of We Need To Talk About Kevin: The Comedy) of one of Foster’s many spousal over-shares. There are times when you’ll ask yourself the same question but, for all its theatrical excess, Carnage is an acting masterclass from four of the best in the business – grit your teeth and pull up a pew.
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A four-way of furious awkwardness played with consummate skill. But, given the talents involved, couldn’t we expect something just a little more substantial?