All-too-clearly based on Yasmina Reza’s stage play, ‘The God of Carnage’, Roman Polanski’s latest film is a claustrophobic study of a tense relationship between two middle-class New York couples.

Almost the entire film is set in the Brooklyn apartment of Penelope and Michael Longstreet (Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly), parents of Ethan, an eleven year-old who was recently hit in the face with a stick by his classmate, Zachary Cowan. Zachary’s parents, Nancy (Kate Winslet) and Alan (Christoph Waltz) come to the Longstreet’s apartment to calmly discuss the altercation between their sons, in the hope of reaching some sort of civilised solution.

Of course, it doesn’t quite go to plan. The tension rises and keeps on rising; remarks about their sons become insinuations of poor parenting; petty differences become big issues; the husbands turn on their wives, the wives turn on their husbands. Try as they might to keep the proceedings proper, they can’t help losing their temper, vomiting, getting drunk, and degenerating into, well, not quite carnage, but certainly pretty uncivilised behaviour.

Being an adaptation from the work of a successful playwright, it’s natural that the script is seen as the film’s centre. But, in actual fact, it’s a little overdone and clunky, and really not all it’s cracked up to be. Despite this, though, the film as a whole just about works. And it’s largely down to two things.

Firstly, the pace. A runtime of 79 minutes is just right. Carnage may touch on some pretty grand themes, but it’s by no means a grand film. The short length goes some way towards giving it the frenzy it needs; any longer and people start looking at their watches. After all, the whole thing’s pretty much set in one room, with only four characters, none of whom are really that interesting.

Secondly, the acting. For the most part, it’s first-rate, and to a large extent makes up for the inanity of the characters. Reilly and Waltz, as the two fathers, are excellent. Reilly gets a lucky break, playing the only character with any depth, or who undergoes any real change, and his transition from calm, jumper-wearing, peaceful Everyman to drunken ‘short-tempered son of a bitch’ is incredibly well-executed.

And Waltz, despite playing a stereotype – smug, suit-wearing big shot, always on his mobile – gives his character a depth that transcends the thinness of the writing. Winslet, as Waltz’s prim investment-broker wife is fine, too, but she’s unremarkable; her character’s so thinly-drawn there’s only so much she can do. Jodie Foster, though, in stark contrast with the others, is pretty dreadful. Playing another stereotype, this time the high-minded Africa-loving liberal with fancy recipes and art books, she has only two settings: very tense and vein-poppingly tense. But luckily she’s the exception.

Overall, it’s not the kind of thing that’s going to change the face of cinema, but it’s a small, fairly well-made, and very well-acted film that’s worth a look. Just don’t expect too much. And try to forget that it’s Polanski, because, compared with films like Chinatown, Rosemary’s Baby and The Pianist, it’s hard to see this as anything other than a trifle.

FACT, out now

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