(director: David Cronenberg; screenwriter: Patrick McGrath based on his novel/Mr. McGrath; cinematographer: Peter Suschitzky; editor: Ronald Sanders; music: Howard Shore; cast: Ralph Fiennes (Dennis “Spider” Cleg), Miranda Richardson (Mrs. Cleg/Yvonne), Gabriel Byrne (Bill Cleg), Lynn Redgrave (Mrs. Wilkinson), John Neville (Terrence), Bradley Hall (Young Spider), Gary Reineke (Freddy); Runtime: 98; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Cronenberg/Samuel Hadida/Catherine Bailey; Sony Pictures Classics; 2002-Canada/UK)

“An unforgettable masterpiece.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

“Spider” is David Cronenberg’s bleak but provocative and flawless film of Patrick McGrath’s adaptation of his acclaimed 1990 novel. Cronenberg (“Crash“/”Dead Ringers“/”Naked Lunch“/”eXistenZ“) does a masterful job of capturing the literary qualities of McGrath’s book and recreating it to film. There is not one false note or wasted gesture. The story is told in the form of a puzzle to trace what led from the protagonist’s withdrawn childhood to his long incarceration in an asylum. Cronenberg’s character is based on McGrath’s book and also from Samuel Beckett’s early novels (he’s very much like a Beckett character stripped down to the barest essentials).

The film swings back and forth from the 1960’s and 1980’s. It opens in the 1980’s as a train pulls into a London station and the many passengers exit with a confidence that they know where they are going. The camera finally settles on a shabbily dressed man in his 30’s wearing four shirts under a blemished overcoat, and carrying a battered suitcase. He looks intently at a piece of paper and seems disoriented. This is our first impression of Dennis Cleg, nicknamed by his mom Spider (Ralph Fiennes), who is a schizophrenic and has just been released from an asylum and will be staying in a halfway house. Cleg’s journey to his new residence takes him far from the city’s center through an isolated and drab East End of London neighborhood, where he coincidentally spent his childhood. The scene is disturbing in that its vacant streets are made up of identical Victorian row houses. Cronenberg has immediately caught the viewer’s attention and has brilliantly drawn us into the web he’s spinning about the grim mental landscape of the mentally ill. We feel Cleg’s confusion and his apprehension as he’s welcomed into his new boarding home by his stern caretaker Mrs. Wilkinson (Lynn Redgrave), who offers no warmth or supervision only a mere pretension to professionalism and the basics in a private room and dining privileges with other mentally handicapped boarders. The dull wallpaper pastels are peeling and the bathtub water appears in an uninviting zinc rust color and the toilet works with an old-fashioned pull-chain. The view is of an industrial canal and the nearby huge gas tank. We are repeatedly shown the gas tank and can only surmise by the negative reaction it triggers in Cleg, that there’s something ominous about it. It isn’t until later that we find out that the gasworks brings back memories of a traumatic event from the past.

The only one who converses with Cleg is a fellow boarder, the elderly Terrence (John Neville), who has accepted his fate and understands there’s no escape from his illness. While Cleg mumbles to himself as it takes all his effort to talk, and keeps a notepad hidden under the carpet where he writes what’s flashing through his head in an undeciferable language only he understands.

Cronenberg’s film is neither dramatic nor clinical as a documentary, but evokes a poetry that tunes into the rhythms of the uncommunicative Cleg and lets us observe him without interference as it draws us into the workings of his troubled mind. It gives the viewer a rare chance to see who someone like Cleg is, who is very much misunderstood like the millions of mentally ill and homeless throughout the world–each with a story of their own. These are people very much like us but for their social unattractiveness and inability to think clearly, who are discarded by the public and the institutions. For the most part, they are hopeless because it is almost impossible to reach them. The only one to make contact with Cleg and share his concerns is his kindred spirit Terrence, but he is too sick to help. The director’s sympathies are entirely with Cleg and through his plight there is an empathy established for all the others like him who are untreatable or not treated. The apparently gentle (but possibly dangerous) Cleg often seems much like us all and his problems universal–of struggling to survive in a cold world.

On Cleg’s walks in his old haunts, the familiar streets bring back memories of his aloof and nasty tempered pub-crawling plumber father (Gabriel Byrne) and his caring homebody mother (Miranda Richardson), and his lonely childhood. In an artful cinematic device, the hunched over present day Cleg appears in his visions with a version of himself as a sullen boy (Bradley Hall-a 10-year-old playing a 13-year-old). Cleg looks at himself as a youngster and the painful memories of those days come pouring out at the spots he revisits in his industrial neighborhood. Miranda Richardson has the dual role of the sweet Mrs. Cleg and the nasty platinum blonde pub tart Yvonne, who entices Spider’s dad and ends up to Spider’s dissatisfaction as his step-mom. In Spider’s visions, he confuses, at times, his real mom with his step-mom. His visions are so fuzzy, that even he can’t be sure if all isn’t manufactured.

I was stunned by how compelling this portrayal of the mentally ill was and of how Cronenberg so artfully wove such an uncompromised claustrophobic work that plays with reality and fantasy. The performances are all grand. Fiennes’ nonspeaking physical performance is masterful and one of this great actor’s best ever. Miranda Richardson is equally as elegant in her contrasting dual role; and Gabriel Byrne, Lynn Redgrave, and John Neville are memorable in their supporting roles. Cinematographer Peter Suschitzky’s photography is muted in atmospheric dreary color patterns of mostly greens and browns that paint a mind-boggling landscape. Howard Shore’s scratchy musical score adds its forceful chamber sounds to the eerie doings of this disturbing tale. It’s not entertainment in the sense of making one feel good, but it’s the work of a great artist and craftsman who tells a diabolical tale that starts as a psychological study of schizophrenia and works up to a Freudian sexual dilemma about repression and escalates to a mystery story of bloody violence. An unforgettable masterpiece, but not for all tastes.

REVIEWED ON 5/14/2003 GRADE: A +   https://dennisschwartzreviews.com/