The events of the movie are mostly seen from Spider's perspective so that the viewer is presented with a world in which reality and the protagonist's imagination constantly interweave with one another. We are shown, for example, how the character inventively recalls how his father had an affair with another woman and eventually killed his mother, but, as both Spider's mother and his father's mistress are played by Miranda Richardson, who, by the end of the film, is also playing the landlady of the halfway house, we soon realize that Spider is confused about and has conflated the identities of the three women. Seeing that the world Spider inhabits is largely one he has constructed, and that his thoughts are invariably muddled, mingling fantasy and reality, we are made to feel the character's madness and his resulting alienation from everyone around him.
Unfortunately, the film unravels too many of the mysteries of Spider's mind. Had we been left in confusion about what was real and what not, we would have had a better sense of Spider's emotions, as the character himself remains confused. Instead, Cronenberg reveals Spider's delusions so that we are able to evaluate the character's perceptions objectively. When our own confusion is removed, our experience of Spider's hopelessness is consequently weakened. We may then have compassion for Spider, but we no longer inhabit the same uncertain, fluid world he does.
The depiction of Spider as a child is, however, well done and allows the viewer to see in him the early stages of what will later be a debilitating mental illness. At the very least, we see the young Spider as his older self does, as filtered through his present illness. It is a sad spectacle to watch. We know the young Spider is heading towards a lifetime of misery and feel misery ourselves as a result.
Such feelings of overwhelming sorrow are emphasized both by the world of the movie and by the performances of the actors. Visually, Spider is a striking film. It is set in a dark, drab, and gloomy London that seems to be the visual expression of Spider's sorrow, depression, and isolation. Even without these grim exteriors, however, the movie would still be affecting. Ralph Fiennes' understated, almost wordless performance is masterful. He captures the crushing sadness and isolation of severe mental illness, revealing that illness in all its harrowing severity.
Spider is a powerful, deeply sorrowful film and is able to evoke a terrible sense of melancholy. As a consequence, it is not a pleasant movie to watch, but it is well worth viewing, nonetheless.
Review by Keith Allen
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