David Cronenberg's latest film, a version of the book by Patrick McGrath, is a fascinating insight into psychosis. Anyone who has ever felt their grip on reality slip, even a little bit, will have sympathy for the dreadful plight of the adult Spider, played excellently by Ralph Fiennes, as he relives his past - prompted by his wanderings around the home territory to which he has finally returned. And at the end of the film, when no-one living has been hurt, and Spider has an enigmatic half-smile, and we are left wondering if his journey was cathartic after all.
Ralph Fiennes creeps like the depressive brother of the snuffling, be-trenchcoated flasher in Terry Gilliam's Monty Python cartoons around an East End that looks like it has been dragged screaming out of the Industrial Revolution. Extremely low on dialogue, this is like classic Ralph, but with added hallucinogens: it is easier than ever to imagine a multitude of worrying thoughts bubbling behind his green-eyed stare. Miranda Richardson is excellent - do not attempt to find out anything about her rôle before you see the film, and your experience will be all the better (and more like Spider's) for it. Gabriel Byrne is, well, Gabriel Byrne, and Bradley Hall from Bognor Regis makes the boy Spider into a sweet, frightening (and frightened) creature.
If there's one thing that sits uneasily within the film, it is the underlying oedipal connotations of Spider's condition. The characterisation of women in the film is therefore a little disturbing, but then there's nothing here that will come as a surprise to Cronenberg fans (and nothing like the severe oddness of Videodrome or The Brood). The emasculated men within Spider's run-down half-way house are presided over by the domineering landlady in a way that smacks of the nurse/patient relationship in Ken Kesey's 'One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest': she patronises, instructs and humiliates; they will do anything for a quiet life, and comply weakly, filled with poisonous hate.
Cronenberg says that his use of a crazy protaganist shows in extreme form how reality is a process of continual construction, demonstrating how society itself is therefore one big "collective psychosis"; furthermore, he claims that in some way, he is Spider. Whilst he has some good points, he also has some barmy ones.
Despite these features, there are so many thoughtful and incredibly intelligent touches in this film, and just the right number of blanks left for the viewer to fill in, that it would be difficult to deny that it is compellingly, strangely beautiful. The products of Spider's 'beautiful mind' are far from being awarded a nobel prize, yet the way in which our experience of his life captivates us nonetheless is a tribute to Cronenberg and his cast. Not all webs of illusion can be neatly wrapped up in the sticky sentimentality and righteousness of a Hollywood happy ending.