The Iranian-British screenwriter, Hossein Amini, has enjoyed a great deal of success with the modern cult classic Drive, amongst his other projects. Now, Amini adds another feather to his cap with his directorial debut The Two Faces of January.
Like almost all his previous projects, Amini has fantastic source material at his disposal. The screenplay is adapted from a lesser-known work by American novelist, Patricia Highsmith, whose books have in the past been adapted into movies by Alfred Hitchcock (Strangers on a Train) and Wim Wenders (The American Friend). The Two Faces of January shares many themes with her most popular novel, The Talented Mr. Ripley, which was also adapted into a 1999 Academy Award-nominated crime drama by Anthony Minghella.
Speaking of similarities between The Two Faces of January and the book, there are a couple of Ripley-esque characters in Amini’s film. One of them is Chester MacFarland (Viggo Mortensen), a conman ‘vacationing’ with his wife Colette (Kirsten Dunst) in Crete, Greece. The other is Rydal (Oscar Isaac — as good here as he was in Inside Llewyn Davis), a handsome and mysterious tour guide, who meets the MacFarlands in Greece and offers to help them remain undercover.
But very soon, the three Americans start outwitting each other. Amini creates a heady cocktail of lust, suspicion and betrayal, peppered with scenes of dancing, heavy smoking and drinking. It is in some ways reminiscent of the American television period drama Mad Men and the ‘60s feel with Chester’s impeccable cream linen suits (costume design by Steven Noble).
The film creates an interesting dynamic between the three characters, pitting playful Colette between these very polarising men. But then it turns out that the two men do have much in common. It makes for an interesting father-son analogy and The Two Faces of January stresses on this quasi-relationship perhaps too much, making the climax a bit hard to digest. One does not see that end coming, since the film’s tempo seemed to have been built up for a darker, more cynical outcome.
What makes the film watchable besides the gorgeous cinematography (Marcel Zyskind has a ball with the locales in Greece and Turkey) is the acting. All three, Mortensen, Dunst and Isaac, give masterful performances. Mortensen is fantastic as the suave-at-first-sight-but-eventually-broken-man and Isaac matches him frame for frame. The film’s most tense moment and intriguing scene involves the two at an airport security check and the way they play against each other. It’s a pity that Kirsten Dunst is a tad side-lined in hindsight, but for what it’s worth, she makes her presence felt.
The Two Faces of January feels very much like a nail-biting page-turner on screen, which is a compliment to Amini’s adaptation skills. He has made a very fine first film, with top-notch actors and it deserves all the appreciation for being a respectable entry in the Highsmith film canon.
Schayan Riaz is a writer based in Germany. He tweets mostly about film @schayanriaz
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, June 1st, 2014.
NEW DELHI: India’s new Prime Minister Narendra Modi has chosen a daring former spy with years of experience as his national security adviser, a move officials say signals a more muscular approach to New Delhi’s traditional enemy Pakistan
The choice of Ajit Doval, alongside former Indian army chief General VK Singh as a federal minister for the northeast region, underscores plans to revamp national security that Modi says became weak under the outgoing government.
The two top-level appointments, reporting directly to Modi, point to a desire to address what are arguably India’s two most pressing external security concerns – Pakistan and China, both of which, like India, have nuclear arms.
Doval, a highly decorated officer renowned for his role in dangerous counter-insurgency missions, has long advocated tough action against militant groups, although operations he has been involved in suggest a level of pragmatism.
In the 1980s, he smuggled himself into the Golden Temple in the city of Amritsar from where Sikh militants were later flushed out, and he infiltrated a powerful guerrilla group fighting for independence from India in the northeastern state of Mizoram. The group ultimately signed a peace accord.
Doval was also on the ground in Kandahar, Afghanistan, when an Indian Airlines plane from Kathmandu was hijacked by Pakistan-based militants on Christmas Eve, 1999. The crisis was resolved when top militants were freed in exchange for hostages.
“Doval is an out-of-the-box thinker,” said an Intelligence Bureau officer with long years of service in Kashmir and other Indian hotspots. “Expect him to shake things up.”
The official, who did not want to be named, said he expected the new security team to push for a rapid expansion of border infrastructure and a streamlining of intelligence services, which still function in isolation and often impede one other.
Singh has declared his priority is to develop the northeast in order to narrow the gap with Chinese investment in roads and railways on its side of the frontier.
India is also creating a new mountain corps and beefing up border defences, although that initiative has stalled.
Fears of Afghan spillover
A secure India is a long-standing goal of Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and the new prime minister himself wants strong borders so the country can focus fully on giving economic growth a much-needed boost.
He won the election in May in a landslide victory largely on economic pledges that India’s 1.2 billion people hope will secure jobs and raise living standards.
But with most foreign troops withdrawing from Afghanistan by the end of this year, India is concerned that militants fighting there will turn their sights towards the disputed region of Kashmir, which is also claimed by Pakistan.
Doval, 69, formerly head of the Intelligence Bureau domestic spy agency, will be National Security Adviser, only the second officer from the intelligence community to hold the post.
By contrast, predecessor Shiv Shankar Menon is a member of the elite Indian Foreign Service – an expert on China and nuclear security known for his formidable intellect.
Doval did not say what his priorities would be after his job was announced on Friday, but in conversations with Reuters previously as head of a right-wing think tank in New Delhi, he said the new government must lay down core security policies, one of which was “zero tolerance” for acts of violence.
He was referring to operations by militants who India says cross from Pakistan, like the gunmen who killed 166 people in Mumbai in 2008 in a brazen assault that brought tentative peace talks between the South Asian rivals to a juddering halt.
Carrot and stick approach
Modi invited his Pakistani counterpart, Nawaz Sharif, to his inauguration in a calculated sign of reconciliation. But he used stick as well as carrot.
During nearly an hour of talks, he told Nawaz Pakistan must prevent militants on its territory from attacking India and act speedily against the men India blames for the Mumbai massacre.
Modi’s assertive stance was in keeping with his Hindu nationalist agenda, which makes many of India’s 175 million or so Muslims nervous, not to mention those in Pakistan next door.
The two nations did, however, agree to relaunch peace talks.
“Terrorism continues to be our main concern and we have to handle it in a holistic manner,” said AS Dulat, a former head of the Research and Analysis Wing, which is charged with external intelligence gathering.
“At the end of the day, war is not an option.”
While India will put diplomatic pressure on Pakistan, there is also an acceptance that the civilian government in Islamabad is not in a position to control all militant groups and that New Delhi needs to address weaknesses in its homeland security.
“The one thing the new government will focus on is internal security, that’s what worries them most. You don’t want another Mumbai, you don’t have a lot of good options if it happens,” said an official at the Home Ministry.
Pakistan said it remained committed to improving ties with India and that it had got off to a good start.
“Whoever is appointed by Modi in his national security team is his own prerogative, and we will certainly not interfere in that,” said Tariq Azeem, a senior official in Nawaz’s team.
“Pakistan will carry on with the determination shown by Nawaz Sharif to build good relations with India. The meeting in Delhi was cordial and friendly and we hope to build on that,” he told Reuters.
Modi’s other key appointment, retired general Singh, may inject new urgency into India’s plan to establish a corps of 80,000 troops along its border with China in the northeast.
A massive programme to build roads and upgrade airfields in the remote area was also cleared by the ousted Congress party, but has lagged.
Singh, who won a parliamentary seat for the BJP in the election, is expected to accelerate the process through the defence bureaucracy, helped by a direct reporting line to the all-powerful prime minister.
“Development of the northeast will be my top priority,” he told reporters after taking charge on Thursday.
China claims more than 90,000 square km of land disputed by New Delhi in the eastern sector of the Himalayas, including most of Arunachal Pradesh state, which China calls South Tibet.
“As China continues to refuse to recognise Arunachal Pradesh as an integral part of India, and builds military-grade highways that can rapidly move tanks and heavy artillery to India’s border, it’s absolutely the perfect stratagem to put a former army chief in charge of the region,” wrote commentator Sandipan Deb in the Mint newspaper.
But in another sign that Modi is keen to defuse regional tensions, he spoke to Chinese Premier Li Keqiang on Thursday and extended an invitation to President Xi Jinping to visit India.
After getting a lukewarm response from the main opposition party in the Parliament over its electoral reforms project, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) has started weighing its options.
Sources told The Express Tribune on Saturday that the PTI was considering various alternatives – including introducing a bill in the National Assembly for electoral reforms.
The PTI had approached the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) some two weeks ago in order to muster support and put pressure on the government over alleged rigging in the 2013 general elections.
The party is holding rallies across the country over the issue and has also demanded that members of the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) voluntarily step down as they had failed to hold free and fair elections in the country.
The PPP had agreed with the PTI to join hands to the extent of working on electoral reforms in the country but had fallen short of supporting its demand for resignations of ECP members.
Interestingly, only a few days before the meeting between leaders of the two parties, leader of the opposition in the National Assembly Syed Khursheed Ahmed Shah had also demanded that the ECP members step down.
However, a meeting between Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and former president and PPP’s co-chairman Asif Ali Zardari helped in changing the stance of the main opposition party.
On the other hand, the Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid (PML-Q) had endorsed the PTI’s viewpoint and nominated its three members for the committee proposed by the PTI for working on electoral reforms.
The three-member team of the PTI including its Vice President Shah Mahmood Qureshi, President Javed Hashmi and General Secretary Jehangir Tareen had held meetings with leaders of both the parties on May 14 when the PPP had said it would nominate two members for the committee.
However, that did not happen. When contacted for confirmation, PTI Vice President Qureshi said the PPP had not nominated any member as yet. Sources said the PPP was perhaps shying away therefore the PTI was considering tabling a bill on the subject.
According to Qureshi, the committee proposed by the PTI was supposed to examine existing laws, to develop a course of action on the basis of the 2013 general elections and to develop national consensus on electoral reform.
The PML-Q had nominated two of its members for the committee, Senator Kamil Ali Agha and Tariq Bashir Cheema, while the PTI had nominated Dr Arif Alvi and Shafqat Mehmood.
Syed Khursheed Shah from the PPP, however, said his party would announce two members after consultation.
Published in The Express Tribune, June 1st, 2014.