Natalie Portman has done pretty well for herself ever since her appearance on the Hollywood scene some ten years ago. I am sure that she owes a great deal to her choice of movie to debut in - Leon - where she plays student to a professional hitman in a violent action-drama about love and revenge. Leon is my favourite movie of all time, so it is understandable that Natalie has become one of my favourite actresses of all time, but after taking on such a heavy role at such a young age (she was barely 13), where could she go from there? Well, great places it would seem. She's starred alongside Al Pacino and Susan Sarandon, made big-budget Hollywood movies like the Star Wars prequels, and low-key thoughtful independent flicks like Garden State. But even with all these films under her belt, she has not quite graduated to adult roles yet - always restrained by her youthful child-like appearance. That is, until now. Closer marks Natalie Portman's first step as a woman in Hollywood.
Directed by Mike Nichols, the man who gave us The Graduate, and based on the play by Patrick Marber, who subsequently wrote the screenplay, Closer is about two couples who get too close for comfort. Fuelled by both love and lust, their intermingling becomes first complicated and then destructive, threatening to result in loss and abandonment. And it is pretty much as simple as that. You see, because of its origins as a play, closer is a very small-scale intimate affair, made great by its ensemble cast and keen direction. There are four main parts - Dan and Alice, and Larry and Anna. Dan is a charming obituary writer who bumps into Alice's stripper, visiting London from New York. Cut to several years later and Dan is a budding writer, happily hooked to Alice but finding himself flirting with Alice, a photographer. Some time later, Alice, now happy with Larry, bumps into Dan at a party where all four of them attend. Can you see where this is going?
The most unusual and either love-it-or-hate-it aspect of the movie is that it is told in a disjointed milestone style, with scenes paired together but taking place months or even years apart, each one a piece to the puzzles that are the messy lives of these characters. It's a very international style of filmmaking and I like it.
The cast probably could not have been better chosen. Jude Law, who has starred in at least half a dozen movies over the last few months - from Hollywood gimmicks like Sky Captain to Oscar-winning alternative westerns like Cold Mountain, with a multitude of varied roles in between. He is certainly the flavour of the month, and his part as Dan is crucial and well portrayed, but he is not the star of this particular production. And Julia Roberts is the best paid actress in the world, just as fond of her fluffy romantic comedy chick-flicks as she is of her more serious, dramatic roles. For me, she was never better than in the titular role of Erin Brokovich, but she does a stand-up role here as Anna, playing a much more mischievous character than she is generally known for.
The real surprise for me though was Clive Owen. Having made his name on British TV in dramas like Chancer and Second Sight, his cinematic endeavours have been largely excellent but seldom big enough to give him the Hollywood roles that he deserved. Recently though, he has just about made it. It all started with his Mike Hodges collaborations. Croupier proved he could carry a movie effortlessly and play a suave, charming anti-hero with ease and aplomb, and I'll Sleep When I'm Dead, whilst borrowing too much from the far superior Hodges / Michael Caine classic, Get Carter, at least cemented his place as a serious contender. In fact, it was not long ago that he was top choice to play the next Bond. But then came King Arthur, which had the potential to propel him into the Hollywood hall of fame but instead nearly knocked him right out of the big league. And now we have Closer, and possibly the performance of his career. Helped no end by being familiar with the material - he played the Jude Law's part as Dan in the stage production - he is utterly convincing as Larry, the distraught betrayed man who finds solace where he least expects it and strength that he never knew he had. There is nobody to relate to or feel more for than Owen's Larry, the true hero of the show, if there is one. And this may just be enough to get him back as Bond, something that he deserves and that I think no one is currently better suited for.
But what you all want to know about is that young lady Natalie, and I don't blame you. Natalie Portman as a stripper/lap-dancer pervades most red-blooded males' dreams - but as Alice, she is much more than just a pretty face. Not only does she show off a woman's body, but she shows off her acting skills as a woman. And good for her for sticking to her guns on the whole no-nudity thing. It didn't stop the gorgeous Michelle Pfeiffer from becoming one of the sexiest women on the planet, and I'm sure it won't do Natalie any harm. Believe me, she has never been more sexy than here and what her character does get up to is more than raunchy enough to sate most appetites.
So all in all, it is a star-studded vehicle. But we would be nowhere without the excellent - and graphic - script, which gives us a genuinely honest look at love and relationships in the new millennium (including a novel take on internet sex chats!) and will touch more than a few nerves with its biting truth. It is snappy and smart and sometimes even laugh-out-loud funny but somehow never unnatural or convincing. And it has one or two surprises up its sleeve for most viewers. Mike Nichols has done an excellent job with some excellent talent and I wholeheartedly recommend this movie.