Main cast: Ralph Fiennes (Dennis "Spider" Cleg), Bradley Hall (Young Spider), Miranda Richardson (Yvonne/Mrs Cleg), Gabriel Byrne (Bill Cleg), John Neville (Terrence), and Lynn Redgrave (Mrs Wilkinson)
Director: David Cronenberg
The beautiful thing about Spider is its unromanticized portrayal of the main character Dennis Cleg's schizophrenia and mental disturbances. There is no schizophrenic geniuses saved by love and given a standing ovation at the Academy Awards, no glamorous pretty boys wanting to become a "credible actor" by acting manic, just Ralph Fiennes understatedly giving a low-key performance. The audience will have be very patient with this movie though - the first half hour of this movie is so fragmented and very slowly paced that I nearly fell asleep and I don't think I will be the only one to nearly do so.
This movie opens with a barely upright adult Dennis Cleg stepping off a train to revisit his hometown in what seems like the gloomiest side of East London. The book this movie is based on is set in the 1960s, but this movie is set in the 1980s. Still, the atmosphere suggests that it is easier to believe that this movie is set in the post-war 1940s depression era. It's that drabby. Dennis becomes the latest tenant in a halfway house run by the stern Mrs Wilkinson. The tenants of this unnamed house are strange and possibly senile sorts, so Dennis fits right at home. This movie then slowly unravels the reasons for Dennis' mental instability - when he was thirteen, he believed that his father Bill murdered his mother to allow the vulgar and brassy mistress Yvonne to live with the Clegs instead.
Spider doesn't offer a clear picture of what happened in Dennis' past. Dennis' memory is obviously unreliable and this movie can get frustrating in that aspect. Nonetheless, it is very easy to symphatize with the unstable and vulnerable young Dennis who has a fascination with creating webs out of strings. Gabriel Byrne has a thankless role to play as Bill the abusive husband but he does the best he could without resorting to too much theatrical cacklings. As a result, I can imagine why a woman will find Bill attractive - Bill can be so charming when he chooses. Miranda Richardson complements Byrne beautifully as both the mousy wife that tries to hold herself together in the face of her cold marriage and the vulgar prostitute that captured Bill's affections.
But at the end of the day, the movie belongs to Fiennes and Bradley Hall. Hall gives a great performance as young Dennis as he and Fiennes both work in synergy to expose layers after layers of poor Dennis' tortured psyche.
Spider is a bleak movie because it is obvious that Dennis will never be able to function in society again. There is no miracles here, only a glimpse into the desolate and bleak psyche of a schizophrenic man. Despite its bleakness, however, Spider always remains watchable and Dennis remains a magnetic lead character.
Like its namesake, this movie captures me in its web and compels me to watch in fascination as it devours Dennis alive and bare every wound and larcerations in his thought processes while making it an enjoyable experience in the process. Surely that can't be anything but good.
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