What if? It’s a big question in all of our lives. What if I’d told her? What if we’d stayed together? What if I’d got that promotion? What if I’d worked harder in school? What if I had had just one more day with her and the chance to say goodbye? If we’re not careful we can get snowed in by “what ifs”.
We have to keep our heads down to escape drowning in never-meant-to-bes or choking on could-have-beens. The possibilities that we spotted passing by out of reach haunt us as regrets. The second chances we never even noticed are too numerous to contemplate and tease us occasionally in our dreams. Let the “what ifs” talk too loudly and their chatter overpowers the everyday routine. Let them grow too tall and even the little things are given dark significance in their shadow.
Sliding Doors is a film about the little “what ifs” bunching together in mundane ordinary life until they have enormous individual consequences. When it was released in 1998 it was greeted by a mixed critical reception but it has since gone on to gain a dedicated following. It stars Gwyneth Paltrow as fashionable young Londoner Helen, complete with believable English accent, who is fired from her job at a PR company. She heads for home via the tube. The film follows two separate paths through her life; one in which she gets the train and one where she fractionally misses it, unable to squeeze through the sliding doors of the title.
The actor Peter Howitt wrote the script and directs a very grounded take on the idea of parallel universes and an alternate reality. The concept could have been lifted straight from sci-fi but Sliding Doors watches more like a meditation on the nature of fate, albeit with an uplifting rom-com tinge. One Helen, the one that gets the train, finds her boyfriend shagging his ex in her bed, only to fall for a handsome stranger. The other is delayed again and again until she arrives home late and unaware of the affair. She therefore carries on her life as normal, working flat out to support him as he “writes a novel”.
The plot is not all that clever, despite the engaging concept of two storylines running in tandem, and the dialogue is not especially witty or sharp. The real strength of Sliding Doors lies with the overlapping lives of rounded, likeable characters, well realised with accomplished performances. Paltrow is accessible rather than whiny in the lead role. John Hannah is convincingly charming and funny because of the way he says things, rather than what he says. John Lynch is a great actor, as he proves in the upcoming Ghosted, and he doesn’t come off badly here despite playing the cheating Gerry, who is often just left to look bumbling and British on the end of a full on feminine bollocking. Jeanne Tripplehorn plays mistress Lydia as a caricature but she serves a purpose and Gerry’s mate Russell (Douglas McFerran) down the pub is hilarious as the sensible one.
None of it is sublime, even the characterisation is simply above average for the genre. The acting is very good but not career defining. That said I really liked Sliding Doors. Its commonplace tone makes it all feel like it could happen to you. There are some slightly surprising twists in the climax and I was a little moved and amused in places. Its parting message is somehow both more resonant and bearable than most romantic comedies. Some things are inevitable. And there’s always hope.
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Chance and fate are like twin sisters; biologically related but far from identical. They are concepts we all know and experience day after day. Yet their effects fluctuate so wildly that no human being can define, prove or explain what exactly they are, or indeed confirm their existence with any certainty. The best, most brilliant minds throughout history have focused their attention on these beguiling, fascinating, unknowable sisters at some point. Everybody, from genius to crack addict, ponders the cruelties of chance, the favours of fate.
Was it chance that brought the girl of your dreams out onto the street in front of you? Was it just bad luck that you were spitting out your gum at the time, so that she walked head on into a potent projectile of sugared saliva and masticated goo? Or were you doomed to failure? Manipulative Miss Fate may have singled you out as her joke of the day. Then again, perhaps she was just redressing the balance after she took out the lights in the bar that time. Your powers of attraction increased tenfold in near darkness, allowing you to raise your standards considerably. That girl, let’s say Linda, barely noticed the peculiar crook of your nose, for instance, or the irrepressible leering tint to your eyes. But then again maybe there’s no balance at all, no order. Maybe it’s just Miss Chance, a bored, daydreaming secretary at her desk, absentmindedly jabbing at her keyboard.
Often the only way we can begin to explore or talk about these sisters is through storytelling. And George Nolfi’s first feature film as a director, The Adjustment Bureau, is fairly explicitly about the human relationship between our free will, each and every choice that we make, and our fate, the possible destiny that may be already determined for us, laid out beyond our control. The Adjustment Bureau is also a film that can claim to be a “sci-fi romantic thriller”; a distinctive and intriguing description of any story.
Indeed ever since I saw the trailer for The Adjustment Bureau I have been anticipating a thoroughly different blockbuster. Several of Phillip K. Dick’s stories have been taken on and adapted by Hollywood, and several more such as The Man in the High Castle (an alternative history of the Cold War), would make excellent movies. Dick had a knack for capturing fascinating science based or philosophical questions, within a captivating narrative framework that really made you think about the issue. Apparently Nolfi has expanded considerably on Dick’s short story, Adjustment Team, for this project, and that may account for some of its failings.
Numerous reviews have pointed out the plot holes in The Adjustment Bureau and lamented its implausibility. For a film marketing itself as exciting, the lack of engaging thrills has also been highlighted. It’s certainly something that requires a greater than usual suspension of disbelief to really enjoy it. However, critics have also been quick and correct to heap praise upon the performances of the two leads.
In interviews Emily Blunt and Matt Damon have talked of how they “dicked around” on set and tried to transfer some of this interaction, this genuine banter, to the screen. It’s a technique that worked tremendously well. Much of Nolfi’s dialogue in this film is good, but inevitably when trying to encompass such grand themes and deal with an issue like love at first sight, the odd passage is clunky, cliché and cheesy. These bad moments have the potential to seriously deflate the quality of a film. But Damon and Blunt’s brilliance ensures that these dances with disaster become strengths. Whenever an emotional speech is about to over step the mark, one of the characters, usually Blunt’s, makes a jokey remark to both lighten the tone and preserve the intensity of what went before. With such sensational plot components Blunt and Damon’s incredible, immense believability and appeal makes the romantic element of the story feel constantly real and affecting.
Damon in particular is excellent as the focus of the tale and adds another impressive notch to his CV. He appears to have truly arrived as a top Hollywood leading man. Here he plays up and coming senator David Norris, who concedes a mammoth lead in the polls thanks to some revelations about his wild shenanigans in the past. It was a step too far for voters, who had been willing to back the fresh faced, young and local candidate. Damon is completely convincing as a politician passionate for change but disillusioned with the system he must embrace to achieve it.
Underneath it all, Norris just wants company and affection, and this Damon portrays well too. In the Gents after his election defeat, he bumps into Elise, a contemporary ballet dancer. After an odd (but believable!) first meeting, Norris is as infected with the chemistry between them as the audience is. He abandons his conservative losing speech in favour of a frank, electrifying exposure of behind the scenes campaigning and the nature of politics as a whole. His popularity sky rockets (one of the film’s multitude of interesting ideas and points is how the public wants honesty in politics but good men are continually stifled from being themselves).
However when Norris tries to pursue his instant infatuation with Elise, he’s warned off by mysterious looking types in 1950s style period suits, wearing silly hats. This is The Adjustment Bureau; the people that make things happen according to plan. They are not all powerful, as they appear to be governed by their own set of rules and frequently require greater levels of “authorisation”, but they can flit about New York City by teleporting through doors and predict the choices you make. John Slattery, Anthony Mackie and Terrence Stamp, all give decent performances as agents of this supernatural organisation.
The dated look of the agents has come in for considerable criticism; but I rather liked it. Whilst the film could be more thrilling, it’s refreshing to watch a blockbuster that’s still exciting and engaging without being stunt heavy. The focus is not on the action but on the plot and the romance between Elise and David. As for the plot holes, especially increasingly silly ones towards the end, these are probably due to the fact that The Adjustment Bureau is ideas heavy. Sure some of these musings on such debated subjects as the limitations of free will, determinism, God, chance and love are far from subtle. But to me that doesn’t matter, especially given the convincing chemistry at the heart of the film driving it forward as the narrative focus. It’s extremely admirable, valid and bold to make a mainstream film about any of these ideas at all. The Adjustment Bureau will get you thinking and talking about them, and hopefully exploring these fascinating areas further.
Besides, in my opinion, not all of the film’s ideas are as flat and basic as some reviews would have you think. The corporation like structure of The Adjustment Bureau for example (with God referred to as The Chairman), made an extremely relevant point about the limitations of our free will today, in supposedly completely liberated western societies. We no longer realistically worry ourselves with tyrants and dictators, but money, class and big business can substantially shape our paths through life and the hold the powerful keys to turning points in our destiny.
I applaud the abundance of ideas in The Adjustment Bureau then, even if it could have been a better film. Because of all the talking points and its compelling romance, it is still a good and worthwhile watch. Perhaps the most resonant, but also cliché, point that it makes though, and chooses to conclude with, is that love is worth fighting for. Whatever uncontrollable obstacles life throws in the way, be it distance/geography, illness/injury or rivals/opponents, love can be enough and worth holding on to. No matter what.
Oh god. Did I actually just type that? Shoot me now. Yes their performances really are that good.
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