Friday, December 3, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Movie Review

"Closer" brims with beautiful people, ugly truths

Seattle Times movie critic

A series of duets etched in ice, "Closer" is a painful journey to the dark side of love. Directed by Mike Nichols, from Patrick Marber's play, it's the story of Anna and Dan and Larry and Alice — and of what happens when lovers realize that what they thought was intimacy and contentment was actually built on lies.

"What's so great about the truth?" one character asks bitterly, late in the film, understanding too late that truth here means betrayal.

Nichols, who's been exploring the dark divide between men and women (and love and sex) since "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" and "Carnal Knowledge," does near-miraculous work here. He draws out the play from its stage confines and helps four A-list actors transcend their own beauty to find the beating, often-cold hearts of their characters. Julia Roberts, most notably, has never been better. Natalie Portman, who can be wooden with the wrong director (see the recent "Star Wars" movies), is startlingly vivid here. And Jude Law and Clive Owen are meticulously controlled, with chilly smiles and heart-wrenching howls of pain.

Movie review

Showtimes and trailer

"Closer," with Julia Roberts, Jude Law, Natalie Portman, Clive Owen. Directed by Mike Nichols, from a screenplay by Patrick Marber, based on the play by Marber. 98 minutes. Rated R for sequences of graphic sexual dialogue, nudity/sexuality and language. Several theaters.

The film unfolds as a handful of set pieces, each separated by time (how much, we're not told; Nichols and Marber respect their audience too much to spell everything out). Dan (Law), an obituary writer, and Alice (Portman), a young drifter, meet on a London street, and you see the initial spark: She gently takes off his glasses and wipes a smudge; he, introducing himself, does a courtly little bow. Zoom ahead and he's a novelist, having his picture taken by photographer Anna (Roberts). Zoom ahead more and Anna's met Larry (Owen), blink and the partners are switched, not very happily. "This will hurt," says Dan, preparing to tell Alice about Anna — as Larry, a doctor, might warn a patient of a needle's sting.

There are moments when "Closer" betrays its stage origins; occasionally the dialogue becomes clipped and unnatural, in a way that we might accept on a stage but not in the more realistic setting of a film. But it's written and filmed with great intelligence, and performed fearlessly. As the actors pair and re-pair, each scene becomes a tour de force: a wittily filmed online sex scene between Larry (as himself) and Dan (who's pretending he's Anna); a dimly lit evening in Dan and Anna's flat, when he learns that she has lied. Roberts, seeming to visibly shrink inside her drab clothing (it's as if she's in armor for the evening), casts off her usual unruffled onscreen quality; she's raw and aching, all glamour gone.

"Closer," with its to-the-bone emotions, isn't for everyone; it could perhaps be fairly described in the words Alice uses to describe Anna's work: "a bunch of sad strangers, photographed beautifully." But, like another two-couple story of betrayal from earlier this year, "We Don't Live Here Anymore," Nichols' film turns pain into art.

Nobody in this film seems to know what they want; they keep asking questions that shouldn't be asked, and shouldn't be answered. Devastated by Anna's announcement of her infidelity, Larry fires a series of questions at her, probing the details as if stabbing his own heart with a pin. "Did you ever love me?" he finally asks. "Yes," she says, in a tiny voice, but the tragedy is that it doesn't matter anymore.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company


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