2002, R, 98 min. Directed by David Cronenberg. Starring Ralph Fiennes, Lynn Redgrave, Gabriel Byrne, Miranda Richardson, John Neville, Gary Reineke.

REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., May 2, 2003

If you’ve never read any of British novelist Patrick McGrath’s work, I urge you to do so. Spider is based on his work of the same name (he also penned The Grotesque, which turned up on American screens some years back with the unfortunate title Gentlemen Don’t Eat Poets and starring Alan Bates, Sting, and Mrs. Sting – Trudy Styler). McGrath’s books wallow (there’s no other world for it) in the classist underpinnings of a long-vanished, thoroughly grotty England, part pre-WWII stodginess and part Monty Python-esque absurdity. His characters tend to have delightfully Dickensian surnames like Coal, Giblet, or Limp, and galumph about their cracked and fading manors like the dog-end of the dusty Empire itself. Despite the grim plotlines – murder most foul tends to pop up quite a bit like some grubby Jack-in-the-Tarn – they’re oddly humorous stories, with intricate moral centers. Think Upstairs, Downstairs as performed by a colony of repressed, leper C of E Vicars and you’re edging toward McGrath’s dodgy territory. David Cronenberg, the Canadian director who has blessed us with both Jeff Goldblum as an oversized insect (in The Fly) and James Woods as the hallucinatory Max Renn (in Videodrome) is probably the only director brave or creative enough to tackle Spider, the tale of Dennis Cleg (Fiennes), a paranoid schizophrenic in Thirties-era London who is released from the asylum and takes up residence in Mrs. Wilkinson’s (Redgrave) halfway house, almost immediately after which he proceeds to have a mumbling, twitching mental meltdown all over again. Surrounded by other aging men whose inner lives have become hideously out-of-whack, Cleg cringes his jittery way through the grey, wet London days as his perception of both reality and time itself seem to twist and tangle into a weblike skein of malingering madness. As a boy, young Dennis’ mother (Richardson) introduced him to the birds and the bees via a tale of female spiders, who, she says, lay their huge egg sacks and theN trundle off to die in dim corners. The story sticks in his imagination (as does his mother’s nickname of "Spider") and it echoes through his adult life, along with less palatable childhood traumas. Spider is in many ways a further examination of David Cronenberg’s ongoing themes of mental and physical dissolution – Cleg’s interior chaos and mental rot is mirrored with perfect imprecision in the stunningly bleak and lachrymose art direction of Arvinder Grewal (a McGrathian moniker, to be sure), who makes every scene appear as if it had been shot through the cataract lens of a cadaver’s eye – and the film’s gruelingly stately pacing gives you some idea of what the days must be like for a man in Cleg’s awful position. Cronenberg’s nonlinear narrative is trying at times – it keeps you nearly as off-kilter as the characters, and surely that’s intentional – but as a character piece about madness and stymied dreams, it’s remarkably realistic. Fiennes’ Spider Cleg is abysmally authentic, and Redgrave’s authoritarian housekeeper/headmistress is downright frightening at times. Not for the faint of heart or those seeking a Cronenbergian gorefest, Spider spins as delicate a web as a madman’s mind.

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Spider, David Cronenberg, Ralph Fiennes, Lynn Redgrave, Gabriel Byrne, Miranda Richardson, John Neville, Gary Reineke

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