[Screen It]

(2002) (Ralph Fiennes, Miranda Richardson) (R)

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Drama: A schizophrenic recalls his troubled childhood and tries to adjust to freedom after being released into the care of a halfway house.
Dennis "Spider" Cleg (RALPH FIENNES) is a marginally functional schizophrenic who's just been released to a halfway house run by Mrs. Wilkinson (LYNN REDGRAVE) where he and other former patients, such as Terrence (JOHN NEVILLE), try to get on with life in a controlled setting.

Scribbling seemingly indecipherable notes for himself in his solitary room, Spider soon begins to recall his life as a young boy (BRADLEY HALL) and being raised by his mother (MIRANDA RICHARDSON) and father, Bill Cleg (GABRIEL BYRNE), a local plumber. Nicknamed by his mother, young Spider is oblivious to the apparent strife between his parents.

He witnesses it firsthand as an adult and "watches" his father spend time in the local pub where he eventually meets and then starts seeing Yvonne (MIRANDA RICHARDSON), one of the various prostitutes who frequent the establishment. As the events of his childhood unfold in front of him - the way Spider remembers them -- it's only a matter of time before we see the pivotal events that made him the way he is today.

OUR TAKE: 6.5 out of 10
Although few people would ever want to live their lives as someone with any sort of mental problem, actors love to play such characters. Perhaps it's because of the involved difficulty in getting such a portrayal just right.

Then again, it might just be the chance to play someone who's different from the norm, especially when that pertains to Hollywood characters. Or it could simply be that such portrayals are often awards show bait. Whatever the case, there are usually only a handful of such characters, if that, in any given year so actors and actresses usually jump at the chance to play them.

The latest is Ralph Fiennes in "Spider," a dramatic look at a schizophrenic whose childhood seriously messed with his now fragile and rather convoluted psyche. When one hears that such a story is helmed by director David Cronenberg - who previously offered the likes of "eXistenZ," "The Fly" and "Scanners" - it's almost a certainty that things are going to be bizarre, or at least interesting.

That's certainly the case in novelist turned screenwriter Patrick McGrath's adaptation of his own literary work. In it, we follow Fiennes' titular character - so named apparently for the web-like collection of strings he run across his ceiling as well as all sorts of story metaphors - as he enters a group home under the control of the domineering Mrs. Wilkinson - played by Lynn Redgrave ("The Next Best Thing," "Gods and Monsters") in a decent supporting role.

From the first moment we see him - as he exits a train and slowly makes his way toward her halfway house, mumbling and shuffling along and later scribbling what amount to personal hieroglyphics in a notepad - we see that he's obviously rather disturbed. Thus, when he spies upon a young boy, we have reason to be concerned and wonder what might happen to either character.

Yet, as to be expected in a Cronenberg film, things aren't exactly what they initially seem, as there are darker layers to be exposed. Without really giving anything away - the more relevant surprises come later on - he turns out to be spying upon himself as a boy in what amounts to some sort of disturbed mental time trip. From that point on, we watch as he remembers, fantasizes and/or imagines the various familial circumstances that led to him being the way he is today.

To say much more about the plot would give away its "surprises" although some viewers will likely figure them out before they're revealed. That's not only because of the various clues Cronenberg and company drop along the way, but also because the mystery isn't terribly complicated.

It doesn't appear, however, that the filmmaker is as interested in creating a grand mystery as he is in examining the human condition and particularly the mind of his title character. While nothing earth-shattering is delivered in terms of any related findings, the portrayal is undeniably sad, troubling and haunting.

Rather than appearing to be gunning for any sort of awards for such a performance, Fiennes ("Maid in Manhattan," "Red Dragon) is terrific in embodying the character. Given little dialogue to speak beyond mumbling, the actor delivers his performance physically - including with those expressive eyes that speak volumes about the character's mindset - and does a superb job.

Bradley Hall, who makes his feature film debut, is also rather good playing the character as a boy, while Gabriel Byrne ("Ghost Ship," "End of Days") delivers a strong if certainly not sympathetic performance as the father figure who may or may not have been as he's remembered. It's Miranda Richardson ("The Hours," "Tom & Viv"), though, who's the standout in playing a number of roles.

I can't say much about the characters and their interaction with the protagonist without giving away the ensuing revelations and surprise. Suffice it to say, she's fabulous in the disparate roles that come off as if different performers were playing them.

Viewers will likely have differing reactions to the film as well as what it's about. Some may find it slow, uneventful and/or predictable. Others may see it as a fascinating portrayal of a deeply disturbed man and/or an allegorical look at people trying to fit into society (since the character has been released back into it and is trying to cope as best as he can).

I fall somewhere in the middle of that, although leaning more toward the latter observation. With some terrific performances and just the right amount of a foreboding and offbeat aura for which the director is known, David Cronenberg's "Spider" is worth checking out. It rates as a 6.5 out of 10.

Reviewed January 28, 2003 / Posted March 14, 2003

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