Dir. David Cronenberg, Can-UK. 2002. Screened in Competition

David Cronenberg has described Spider as "pure". This is something of an understatement. An uncompromising portrait of mental disturbance, Spider makes Cronenberg's previous Competition entry Crash seem commercial; whereas the 1996 film promised attractions such as cars and sex, Spider has nothing to entice viewers but a note-perfect cast delivering a sad story that gets sadder as its jig-saw pieces come together and then apart. Anchored by an all-too-convincing Ralph Fiennes, the film captures the 'unbeautiful mind' of the title character, exposing the true face of psychosis and providing a necessary counterpoint to the feelgood Oscar winner. The vast majority of such persons do not go on to receive the Nobel Prize but are swallowed by a black hole from within.

Spider would seem to have Palme d'Or written all over it; certainly jury president David Lynch cannot but approve of a film with a lead actor who has perhaps two coherent lines of dialogue and a lead actress, the exceptional Miranda Richardson, playing three roles. The $12m majority Canada/UK co-production should at least make its money back - it has been pre-sold in most of the Cronenberg-friendly territories - but even if it doesn't, it will cement Cronenberg's reputation as an auteur who goes where others fear to tread while remaining ultimately accessible.

Shuffling, muttering Dennis Kleg (Fiennes) - the kind of person one gives wide berth on an urban pavement - arrives at a half-way house in London's East End ruled over by the stern Mrs Wilkinson (Redgrave). As he begins exploring his new environment, it becomes apparent that Kleg is in familiar territory: a dreary landscape of row houses, canals and huge natural gas storage tanks that is stirring painful memories. As Kleg begins a diary of incomprehensible script, he time-travels like Dickens' Scrooge to witness his early life and in so doing tease out the mystery behind the murder of his mother.

In Patrick McGrath's source novel, Kleg, or rather his hidden personality, Spider, is a literate if unreliable narrator writing a diary; indeed, the original draft of McGrath's adaptation included voice-over by the adult Kleg. Cronenberg has dispensed with narration, relying instead on the power of flashbacks to lead the audience down the hall of shattered mirrors that is Spider's mind. Fiennes' adult Spider watches his younger self, a shy, already obsessive child and his beleaguered parents, the mousy mother (Richardson) and his touchy sullen father (Byrne), a plumber who spends too much time and money down at the local pub. But all is not as it appears. Just as the picture of the past takes shape, the image is cracked by Kleg's (and the audience's) dawning realisation that Spider's imagined history is a sham, a self-administered bandage on a festering wound.

If Fiennes is the film's anchor, Richardson is its compass, each of her three roles an indicator of Spider's disintegrating grip on reality. For Richardson also plays Yvonne, a garrulous bottle-blonde hooker who supplants young Spider's absent (brunette) mother: the Madonna/whore complex is seamlessly conveyed. This brilliant device brings matters to a pitch when Richardson's dons her third role, becoming the adult Spider's tormentor, Mrs Wilkinson. Well cast in smaller roles, both Byrne and Redgrave deliver subtle shifts in their characters' presentation, as the film's subjective viewpoint passes from Spider's fantasy to Kleg's reality.

Key creative work is the equal of the actors. Andrew Sanders' production design is austerely claustrophobic, providing sharp contrast for key flashbacks (as opposed to delusions) to the adult Kleg's time as a gardener in a rural asylum, and the suggestion of just how wrong it is that this man is back in society. Cinematographer Peter Suschitzky is in complete harmony with the director's intention. He takes a tricky conceit - a ghost from the future in a scene from his past - and makes it real. The air in this film looks like it could fizzle a struck match.

It has been suggested that Spider's purity is a visceral response to Cronenberg's recent disappointment with the Hollywood system, when he left the production of Basic Instinct II. Spider is an uncompromising look at a mind consumed in a process otherwise invisible to the outside world.

Prod co: Artists Independent Network, CBL, Grosvenor Park Productions, TeleFilm Canada
Int'l sales:
Capitol Films
Canada dist:
Alliance Atlantis
Catherine Bailey, Cronenberg
Exec prod:
Luc Roeg, Charles Finch, Martin Katz
Patrick McGrath
Peter Suschitzky
Prod des:
Andrew Sanders
Ron Sanders
Howard Shore
Ralph Fiennes, Miranda Richardson, Gabriel Byrne, Lynn Redgrave, John Neville, Bradley Hall