London, the present day. Dan, a journalist (Jude Law), meets Alice (Natalie Portman) one day when he saves her from being run over by a taxi. As he takes her to the Accident & Emergency Department, Dan becomes fascinated by Alice, a self-described “waif” who works as a stripper and pole dancer, and they become lovers. Dan meets Anna (Julia Roberts) when she has the job of photographing him for his newly published book. Soon afterwards, Larry (Clive Owen), a doctor, finds himself talking very dirty in a chatroom with “Anna”…who is really Dan. Dan arranges a meeting for Larry with Anna at an aquarium, somewhere where the real Anna often goes for relaxation…and sure enough Larry meets Anna there. Once the initial awkwardness and embarrassment wears off, they begin a relationship.
Closer is based on Patrick Marber’s award-winning play. I saw Closer on the London stage in 1998 and if memory serves, Marber’s screenplay is quite faithful to the original, apart from making the two women Americans. (Cate Blanchett was going to play Anna originally, but dropped out due to pregnancy.) Marber pares his story down to a point where it becomes almost abstract: apart from two bit parts, the central quartet are the only characters. Also, he only shows us scenes of relationships beginning or ending. What happens in the middle is left for us to infer. The result is a deeply cynical and often bitterly funny look at modern relationships which seems to wonder if men and women can possibly remain faithful or even simply get together without ultimately hurting each other. Another theme is the mask or disguise we present to other people, hence a twist in the plot towards the end.
Mike Nichols is an ideal director for this kind of material, having been here before with his first feature, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (also a theatrically-derived four-hander), and more particularly Carnal Knowledge. Unlike the latter film, Closer gives the women equal time to the men, but it’s also a detached film and to some people may well be a cold one. How well you respond to it will depend on your tolerance of four not especially likeable characters. Closer is a film with no on-screen sex, only brief nudity but plenty of emotional violence in some very explicit dialogue. Given the BBFC’s language rules, a 15 certificate is surprisingly lenient, so be warned. This is a very well made film, superbly acted by all four principals, but it’s unlikely to be a comfortable experience for most people.