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*Also starring: Gabriel Byrne, Lynn Redgrave, John Neville, Gary Reineke, Bradley Hall

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1.  Harvey Karten review follows movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review
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Review by Harvey Karten
3 stars out of 4

Some glitzy movies have not only glorified the use of drugs but have made virtual heroes out of individuals who are mentally ill. Scott Hicks's "Shine," for example, posits a dysfunctional adult who finds peace in the very thing that drove him to the edge: his music. In that story by David Helfgott, the prodigy even finds love. In Ron Howard's "A Beautiful Mind," a psychotic John Nash's career at M.I.T. and his marriage are put to a test, but in Russell Crowe's performance, Nash comes across as a man to be admired. David Cronenberg presents a more realistic picture of the suffering faced by a schizophrenic, one that should put to rest any thought that the mentally ill can "snap out of it" if only they would get off their butts and should make those who laugh at helpless, acting-out people on the street truly ashamed.

Though its slow pace and restrained melodramatics are likely to keep "Spider" confined to the arthouse, Cronenberg's film, based on Patrick McGrath's novel, gives Ralph Fiennes an opportunity to show a side of his talent hardly mined by the silly Hollywood movie "Maid in Manhattan." Fiennes performs in the role of an individual driven to madness in part by guilt over an enormous crime and a mental deterioration seemingly brought on by his perception of family relations when he was just ten years of age.

Toronto-born Cronenberg abandons his signature use of special effects and gore ("The Fly") to present the interior monologue of a mentally ill man who is released all too early from an East London institution to a grim, claustrophobic half-way house presided over by Mrs. Wilkinson (Lynn Redgrave) a no-nonsense landlady who is sensitive to the needs of her unhappy tenants while at the same time demonstrating no fear in their presence. Opening the story at the train station, Cronenberg contrasts Mr. Cleg (Fiennes), a.k.a. Spider because of his fascination with spinning webs with his hands, with the normal folks of London, as the latter briskly walk toward their destinations from the platform while Cleg can barely get himself to climb down from the train or to lift his head from the ground or even to say much other than gibberish. Unresponsive even to friendly co-inmate, Terrence (played adorably by John Neville), Spider takes refuge in his childhood, watching over himself at the age of ten (played by newcomer Bradley Hall) and his parents, Mrs. Cleg (Miranda Richardson) and Bill Cleg (Gabriel Byrne). He watches with dismay as his father carries on an affair with Yvonne (played as well by Miranda Richardson).

As Spider constructs both his metaphorical and actual webs, Cronenberg spins a tale making no distinction between Spider's present life as a middle-aged adult and his childhood at the age of ten. In both cases, the physical surroundings are bleak, mirroring the depressed man's unending emotional turbulence. Like Eugene O'Neill, whose one comedy depicts what that playwright would have liked his miserable childhood to be, Spider is regularly taunted by the possibility of a happier upbringing but is helpless to conjure up visions from his imagination. He is fixated on the gruesome events within his dysfunctional family to such an extent that we could well imagine that this poor guy represents a greater danger to his society and himself than a common criminal.

While a broad segment of the moviegoing public might appreciate the astonishing performance of Mr. Fiennes, the languid pace could frustrate all but the most avid fans of non- commercial cinema. For them, "Spider" is welcome.

Copyright 2003 Harvey Karten

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