Carnage | reviews, news & interviews
Roman Polanski brings Yasmina Reza's thoroughly entertaining comedy of middle-class manners to the screen
Yasmina Reza first came to theatregoers' attention with her 1994 play Art, a very funny three-hander about friendship and intellectual pretension. God of Carnage, this time a four-hander but an equally astute comedy of manners peopled by another bunch of bourgeois characters, debuted in 2007 - and now Roman Polanski has adapted it for the screen, co-writing the screenplay with Reza and moving the action from Paris to New York City.
God of Carnage is a real-time, one-room drama and Polanski has made little effort to widen it out in Carnage, but this works very much in the film's favour, as we see two couples' forced politeness move relentlessly to all-out war over the course of a few hours, and every detail of their pettiness, insufferable smugness, emotional neglect, cruelty and thwarted ambition is laid before us in a beautifully modulated 80 minutes.
The story is set up during the opening credits; we are in upper-middle-class Brooklyn and a group of boys are playing in a local park. Alan and Nancy Cowan's son Zachary hits Penelope and Michael Longstreet's son, Ethan. Both boys are 11 and attend the same expensive private school, and their skirmish is the sort of rough and tumble that happens in parks and playgrounds every day. But because Ethan has suffered some dental damage the Longstreets invite the Cowans to their chi-chi condo to discuss the matter.
At first it's all apparent sweetness as the two couples agree on a statement about what happened. But there are signs of difficulties to come; Alan (Christoph Waltz), a busy lawyer constantly on his mobile phone, pedantically insists on a word being changed, while Kate Winslet's marketing executive Nancy, all nervous smiles, constantly apologises for what has happened but is at pains to point out that Zachary “is not a bully”, as Penelope has described him; Alan, meanwhile, breezily describes him as a thug. Penelope (Jodie Foster), an oh-so liberal campaigner, wants things to be sorted to her satisfaction, while her husband (John C Reilly), an upwardly aspiring and very successful kitchenware salesman, lays on the bonhomie.
As the afternoon wears into evening, the false smiles fade and the recriminations start, but it isn't simply one couple against the other: loyalties shift and slide as some home truths are expressed about their marriages. And then, when the expensive scotch comes out, so does the vitriol - and the vomit. In the funniest movie barf scene since last year's Bridesmaids, Nancy (Winslet pictured right) covers her husband's handmade shoes and Penelope's precious coffee-table art books in a toxic mixture of booze with the tea and apple-and-pear cobbler (crumble) that Penelope has specially prepared for their guests but which piggish Michael had already dug into before they arrived. There are several laugh-out-loud scenes in Carnage, but none more satisfying than this - although Michael's outraged cry "My wife dressed me as a liberal" when he can stand no more of this faux appeasing nonsense comes a close second.
The actors are clearily having ball with these roles, as their characters run through a vast range of emotions even when so much is left unsaid. And no character is entirely good or entirely bad: Penelope may appreciate the finer things of life, but fails to comprehend how children really play, while husband Michael is laid back where child-rearing is concerned but does something unspeakably cruel to a family pet. As for Alan, he may be a neglectful father, but he's a realistic one too, and even the film's most sympathetic character, the guilt-ridden Nancy, leaves a lot to be desired on the parenting front.
The final scene, which plays out over the credits, acts as a nice riposte to the hand-wringing pseudo-liberal parenting nonsense that has gone on before, a satisfying end to a thoroughly engaging film.
Watch the trailer to Carnage
Subscribe to theartsdesk.com
Thank you for continuing to read our work on theartsdesk.com. For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 10,000 pieces, we're asking for £2.95 per month or £25 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.
To take an annual subscription now simply click here.
And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a theartsdesk.com gift subscription?