– Summary –
Director : Peter Howitt
Cast : Gwenyth Paltrow, John Hannah, Jeanne Tripplehorn, John Lynch, Zara Turner, Douglas McFerren, Paul Brightwell, Nina Young, Virginia McKenna.
Year Of Release : 1998
Length : 90 Minutes
Synopsis: Helen runs for her train after being sacked from her job: from there the film diverges as we follow her path as she both misses, and catches, the train.
Review : Adultery, romance and all the gooey stuff in between are stuffed into this delightful romantic comedy/drama, with wonderful performances from the entire cast. Never preachy or sentimental, Sliding Doors manages to fill that oft-missed gap in romantic movies by being grounded in some sort of reality.
Seminal romantic-comedy/drama starring Gwenyth Paltrow (pre-Oscar meltdown!) and wonderful Scottish-born actor John Hannah (who starred with Brendan Fraser in the Mummy movies), Sliding Doors remains one of my favourite Paltrow performances. John Hannah makes a charming leading man, with John Lynch as the caddish boyfriend who can’t decide between Helen and his ex, Lydia (Tripplehorn).
The film is an interesting blend of “what if” and “could be”, with Paltrow starring as Helen, the poor soul afflicted with a boyfriend who’s having an affair with his ex-girlfriend Lydia. When she’s summarily sacked from her high profile PR job, she goes to catch the train home. When she misses the train, we suddenly reverse the film back to a point at which Helen actually makes it to the train in time, and from there, the film diverges to follow both stories. In story 1, where Helen misses the train, she goes to catch a taxi and is mugged, ending up in hospital, before arriving home to where Gerry (Lynch) is waiting, post-coitus with former flame Lydia. In story 2, Helen arrives home to discover Gerry and Lydia in a moment of orgasmic bliss. She leaves Gerry, to start up her own business, and eventually finds (and falls for) local businessman James (Hannah).
Long-time readers of this website will know that I have a low tolerance for what are traditionally known as “chick flicks”, ie, romantic comedies. I often find them demeaning and trite, lowbrow comedy aiming their barbs at typically stupid men and quit-witted best friends of the dopey (but lovely) heroine. Sometimes, though, a romantic comedy will hit the right mark, and transcend the genre to become a genuinely good, if not great, film. Sliding Doors is a member of that latter category. The script, from director Howitt, never goes into the mawkish slop covered in so many other films of this ilk. The characters are believable, the scenarios and situations based on reality, which gives them a depth most romcoms avoid. That’s not to say the characters are great, they’re not really, but the cast give them the requisite gravitas.
I guess it’s a little unfair to label Sliding Doors as a romantic comedy considering it’s less comedic and more dramatic: something a traditional romcom avoids where possible. After all, a successful romcom recipe is to be as un-realistic as possible. Sliding Doors is more realistic than most, the fact that this could happen is what gives the film it’s street-smart appeal. Paltrow leads this cast through a turbulent time, her portrayal of Helen alternately dark and sombre, and bright and bubbly. The fact she remains miserable while with Gerry, unable to maintain interest in their relationship, while being substantially happier in her Helen/James timeline, is telling. We know Gerry is bad for her, it’s just that she seems content to stay with him even though she suspects he’s having an affair. Tripplehorn’s character of Lydia is an enigma, a woman who seems annoyed with Gerry for being a complete wanker, and annoyed with herself for sticking around to wait for him. She’s never happy with him, which makes their relationship more confusing to me. Why would she stick around if she finds him such an ass?
Hannah, meanwhile, the verbose leading man with whom Helen finds herself a kindred spirit, is much more pleasant. Hannah doesn’t strike me as a typical leading man, and indeed, his continuous banter and middle-class British humour seem at odds with Helens more reserved, upper-class persona. Yet both Hannah and Paltrow have a great chemistry, giving this film the requisite warm-fuzzy feelings.
Perhaps the weakest point in the film is the character of Gerry, as played by John Lynch. The film generates its main narrative thrust from Gerry being an impossible wanker, a two-timing moron with commitment issues. The problem is that Gerry is so unbelievably annoying with his inept emotional constipation, his inability to choose one woman over the other and made a decision, it doesn’t really do justice to the dramatic weight of the rest of the film. Lynch does a great job, his frustration and confusion really giving us a “bad guy” we can kind of empathise with, but the script doesn’t give him a motive for his actions. He’s a cad because he has to be, not because he wants to be, as far as the script is concerned. This is still only a minor quibble, but worth mentioning nonetheless.
Director Peter Howitt has a deft handling on the material, his direction of the cast feels natural and never really “handled”. His camerawork never tries to be fancy, flashy or stylish: instead, he keeps the camera back a little, allowing the actors to tell the story in their own way and in their own time, without resorting to editing trickery. This is what I would term a “solid” effort at direction. The lack of “Hollywood-ness” style behind the camera is a refreshing change, although some may find the look of the movie a little boring.
There’s a lot to like about Sliding Doors, not in the least is the accessible performance by both Paltrow and Hannah. The story is relevant to modern life, the characters almost entirely believable. While Sliding Doors narrowly escapes being tagged as a genuine Romantic Comedy, I’d label it instead a Romantic Dramedy and recommend it to anybody looking for an intelligent, witty, moving night in front of the TV.
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