Awaking to the Nightmares of His Youth
By DAVE KEHR
"THE wallpaper was very important," David Cronenberg said. "There is a
lot of wallpaper in this movie."
And so there is - wallpaper of a distinctively scratchy, smoke-stained
variety, with bilious undertones of green, gray and yellow, all
characteristic of the immediate postwar period in Britain.
This is the postwar Britain where George Orwell wrote "Nineteen
Eighty-four" and from which he drew many of the drab details of his
nightmarish vision of the near future. It is the postwar Britain of
David Lean's "Brief Encounter" (1946) and Carol Reed's "Fallen Idol"
(1948), a drab, forlorn, nearly lifeless landscape where the great hopes
that accompanied the end of hostilities have collapsed under the reality
of economic stagnation.
This is also the Britain where "Spider," Mr. Cronenberg's latest film,
is set. A harrowing, stylized psychological drama, "Spider" climbs
inside the tortured memories of the title character, a jittery young man
(Ralph Fiennes) who has been released from a mental institution into
this harsh, unaccommodating new world. The film will open on Friday in
New York and Los Angeles, and then nationally on March 14.
"In fact, things in England were worse than what had come before," Mr.
Cronenberg said over coffee in September at the Toronto International
Film Festival, where "Spider" had its North American premiere. "They had
lost their empire, which is something I think they're still recovering
Though Mr. Cronenberg, 59, was born and raised in Toronto (where he
continues to work), his father was a British journalist who steeped him
in Anglophilia. "I went to England when I was very young," he
remembered, "I mean, in my early 20's. And I've been going there for a
long time. So I had a real feel for it physically as well as
artistically. I slept on floors with the heater burning your face and
the rest of you freezing. And the moldy, damp wallpaper was a very
important part for me, because you need to feel all that stuff. You can
feel the itchiness of the clothes."
The sense of loss and disorientation, of a world turned upside down and
inside out, is central to "Spider." Adapted by the English author
Patrick McGrath from his own 1990 novel, the film opens with the newly
released Spider Cleg feeling his way through an eerily deserted
industrial London in search of the halfway house where he is to live.
The institution, supervised by the compassionate Mrs. Wilkinson (Lynn
Redgrave), turns out to bear a strong enough resemblance to Spider's
childhood home that it plunges him into a series of hallucinatory
flashbacks. He sees himself as a child, reliving the traumatic incident
that set off his mental illness.
We never learn how much of Spider's memories is true and how much
invention. But what we see as the adult Spider looks on, sharing the
frame with his younger self (portrayed by Bradley Hall), is a bizarre
Oedipal drama in which his alcoholic, abusive father (Gabriel Byrne)
seems to murder Spider's long-suffering mother (Miranda Richardson) and
move a cockney prostitute into her place in the family home. The
prostitute, Yvonne, is played by Ms. Richardson as well, a device that
blends the ancient archetypes of mother and whore into a frighteningly
"I think he's someone who has harbored a particular vision of his
childhood and embellished it," Mr. Fiennes said of his character,
speaking in Toronto last fall. "And he comes out into this halfway
house, and he revisits the precise locations of his childhood, which are
catalysts for his crystallizing these fantasy memories, as if to keep
away the real truth of what happened."
When he talks about his character, Mr. Fiennes reflexively drops his
gaze and mumbles into his chest, much as Spider does: "Sometimes Spider
revisits the scenes of his childhood and remembers exactly what
happened, like the brushing of the mother's hair or watching the meals
being served. And then he takes these moments of basically healthy
memory into this other area where he revisits the panic of his emerging
sexuality, as he sees it in his mother. And that creates Yvonne.
"And in his head what is fantasy memory and what is ordinary memory
becomes very confused," Mr. Fiennes said. "When he's watching the boy, I
think that it's really happening. But when the boy isn't present, like
the scene on the canal where Miranda gropes Gabriel Byrne, I think
that's what they call infected memory, thoughts that didn't really
The psychological drama of "Spider" might seem at first a departure for
Mr. Cronenberg, whose reputation rests on more overt horror films like
"Scanners" (1981), "The Fly" (1986) and "Dead Ringers" (1988). But since
"Naked Lunch" in 1991, Mr. Cronenberg has been moving into less clearly
charted territory, exploring worlds in which reality bleeds into fantasy
and vice versa, sometimes inspired by traditional drugs (like the heroin
use in "Naked Lunch"), sometimes by new ones (like the video game of
1999's "Existenz") and sometimes by the timelessly intoxicating
qualities of sex and violence, as in Mr. Cronenberg's notorious 1996
"Crash," about sexual outlaws turned on by car wrecks. In the meantime,
the special effects that once dominated his work have diminished into
"Some people have said to me, `Well, it's not like your other movies,
where there are body effects and stuff,' " Mr. Cronenberg observed. "And
I said, `No, for me special effects is nothing - I mean, no different
from lighting or costume or makeup.' It's just a tool that you have and
you use it when you need to and you don't when you don't. But the
character Spider is very body-centered. He's obsessed with his body; he
feels things are emanating from it. But it's all in his head."
For Miranda Richardson, the postwar period of "Spider" was a place she
had already visited, in the 1985 film that first brought her to
attention, "Dance With a Stranger." "Certain elements were probably
still there in my head from `Dance,' " she remembered. "Everybody wanted
a party - that being the main phrase I remember - after the war. But of
course, not everybody got one. Hence, all the pubs and little clubs
springing up and all the after-hours drinking. And of course, Yvonne is
part of that. Let's all have a good time, you know, despite everything."
In such a stylized film, does an actor reach for a stylized performance?
"No, I sincerely hope not," Ms. Richardson said. "I was trying to play
for the truth of each character. It gets a bit more heightened when
Yvonne takes over Mrs. Cleg and wears her clothes and takes on the
domestic goddess role. I did kind of up it a bit then. I think Yvonne
became a bit more considered in what she was saying, because she's got a
different responsibility now. She's gone up in the world. She's not on
A British-Canadian co-production, "Spider" matched exterior scenes
photographed in London with studio sequences shot on a Toronto sound
stage. "It didn't start out as formally expressionistic as it ended up
being," Mr. Cronenberg said. "And it did end up being quite
expressionistic, I think.
"The streets of London have never been that empty, not even in the 40's.
We had period cars ready to go. We had extras dressed in period
costumes. But whenever we would put them in the frame, my cameraman and
I and everybody else, we would say that's not right. What's wrong? I'd
say, well, let's get rid of that guy, let's get rid of that car, let's
get rid of that pushcart. And the more we took away, the better it was,
until it was just Spider alone on the street.
"It became obvious that it was really Spider's solitude and his
disconnection that we were expressing," Mr. Cronenberg added. "And
that's why the streets had to be empty and the rooms had to be so
That approach was something that developed during the actual shooting,
according to Mr. Cronenberg. Despite the complex visual effects his
films sometimes require, Mr. Cronenberg said, he resists the process
known in the trade as storyboarding, in which each shot is sketched out
comic-book style before the filming begins.
"I don't want to impose a rigorous external, preconceived idea on a
movie when in fact I have wonderful collaborators and I have the
opportunity to respond to the actual event of shooting the film," he
said. "It's a very sculptural and tactile process for me, making a
For all of the density and ambiguity of "Spider," Mr. Fiennes said, in
the end he came to appreciate his character's lucidity. "I felt he had a
very clear take on his fears and his apprehensions," he said, "on his
anxieties about where he was and who he was with. In fact, it was a
great role for that reason, because I could just look and react. And
there was a lot to react to. That's why not having many lines didn't
really matter. There's a lot going on in this man's head."
Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company