Film review: Spider

Published: Friday, April 25 2003 7:54 a.m. MDT

There are two groups of people who are bound to be pleased by "Spider" — those who have read the source material and those who have been waiting for David Cronenberg to make a substantive film again.

Admittedly, those are two pretty small groups. Patrick McGrath's novel "Spider is probably too peculiar to appeal to the masses. And it's been awhile since the Canadian filmmaker produced anything to get excited about, causing his audience to shrink in both size and enthusiasm.

Also, this adaptation is a bit too literal for its own good. Consequently, it's less creepy than the book, and the tale has less impact when told cinematically instead of on the printed page.

The title refers to Dennis "Spider" Cleg (Ralph Fiennes), a rather troubled Londoner. He has just been released from an institution and finds himself living in a home run by the stern Mrs. Wilkinson (Lynn Redgrave). That also puts him close to the neighborhood where he grew up. So he uses the opportunity to visit some of his old haunts, and to confront some doubts that are eating away at him.

Foremost among them are recollections of his childhood, made unhappy by the squabbling between his parents (Miranda Richardson and Gabriel Byrne). However, his recollection seems a bit hazy, so he turns to a journal and begins writing down the thoughts that are racing through his head.

Surprisingly, Cronenberg tones down his usually heavy visual style, which allows the menace to be conveyed through brooding atmosphere rather than any gimmicks or actual gore. That's probably in deference to the screenplay, which was written by McGrath himself — and there's not as much voice-over as you might expect if you've read the book.

The performances are what really makes the material effective, though. Fiennes' Spider, complete with his near-indecipherable mumbling and unflattering haircut, is more endearing and sympathetic than you might think. However, it's the always underrated Richardson who really impresses.

"Spider" is rated R for simulated sex and sexual contact, occasional use of crude sexual slang terms and strong profanity, violence (a bludgeoning) and brief female nudity (including some nude photos). Running time: 94 minutes.


E-MAIL: jeff@desnews.com