Directed by David Cronenberg
Written by Patrick McGrath, based on his novel
Sony Pictures Classics, 2002
Cast includes: Ralph Fiennes, Miranda Richardson, Lynn Redgrave, John Neville, and Bradley Hall
The only thing worse than losing your mind… is finding it again.
Spider is set in the East End London in the 1960s and ’80’s. A deeply disturbed boy, Spider (Bradley Hall), ‘sees’ his father brutally murder his mother and replace her with a prostitute, Yvonne (Miranda Richardson). Convinced they plan to murder him next, Spider hatches an insane plan, which he carries through to tragic effect. Years later, Spider (Ralph Fiennes) is released into a halfway house, where he receives little care or attention from the landlady Mrs. Wilkinson (Lynn Redgrave). Unsupervised, Spider stops taking his medication and starts revisiting his childhood haunts. His attempts to sustain his delusional account of his past begin to unravel and Spider spirals into fresh madness. [From the official website which is no longer available on the Internet]
Spider (Ralph Fiennes) has been allowed a second chance at life after a long stay in a mental institution and sent to a halfway house under the stern watch of Mrs. Ilkenson (Lynn Redgrave). Revisiting his old neighborhood reawakens memories of his where his mother (Miranda Richardson) and his father (Gabriel Byrne) raised him. He soon begins to uncover the real truth shifting seamlessly back and forth between the tragic events that polarized a boy’s adolescence to the shell of man enduring the surreal plausible reality of today.–Spider DVD Cover
More promotional images are available in the Gallery.
Mrs. Cleg: What are you doing?
Dennis: Making something.
Mrs. Cleg: Aren’t you clever…You’re so good with your hands.
Dennis: It’s for you.
Mrs. Cleg: Well, it was different when I was girl. We lived out in the country then. Essex. I remember how I’d go across the fields in the morning and I’d see the webs in the trees. Like clouds of muslin they were.
Dennis: What? Spider webs?
Mrs. Cleg: Course spider’s webs. Who else makes webs? Then, when I got close, I’d see they wasn’t muslin at all. They were wheels. Great big shining wheels. You know what else?
Mrs. Cleg: If you knew where to look, you could find the spider’s egg bags. Perfect little things they were. Tiny little silk pockets she made to put her eggs in.
Dennis: What happened to her after she laid her eggs?
Mrs. Cleg: You like this bit, don’t you? She just crawled away without looking back once.
Dennis: Do you mean she died?
Mrs. Cleg: Her work was done. She had no more silk left. She was all dried up and empty.
Bill Cleg enters.
Bill: (to his wife) You ready then?
Mrs. Cleg: Ready as I’ll ever be.
Bill: (to Dennis): And you. You guard the house.
Yvonne: I had a cat called Bill once. Nippy out, eh? Glad I’ve got me fur. Do you like my fur? I got it out at the market, didn’t I? Second hand. Still, what isn’t, these days? I’m a bit second hand meself. But you don’t mind that, do you, Bill? Probably like that, don’t you? Second hand.
Bill: What is the matter with you, Dennis? Why are you so angry with us?
A set of 107 screencaps for Spider is available in the Gallery.
comments from dvd extras
David Cronenberg: Now I was very excited to get Gabriel Byrne to play Bill, who is the Spider father. About three quarters of the time in the movie he is playing the fantasy projection of other characters.
Gabriel Byrne: In my opinion, I think Bill Cleg is the most difficult character in the entire piece to play. He has to play a reality all the way through the film. Yet, at the same time, Boy Spider perceives him as a demon, but I can’t play him as a demon because otherwise that give a lie to the end of the film. It’s a very difficult thing, to tread the line between being a bad man in the eyes of a child and being real for the audience, so that the audience understands the story. So, its actually very slippery and it’s probably the most difficult role I’ve ever played in my life.
David Cronenberg: You know, an actor cannot act an abstract concept any more than I can photograph an abstract concept. I have to photograph something solid, including people, that can represent an abstract idea. And, likewise, an actor wants to play a real character. And it’s very difficult to play a fantasy projection of some other character in the movie, often who is not in the same scene with you at that time.
David Cronenberg: So, it’s a very tricky subtle thing he had to do and I’d have to guide him through: What level of “real” Bill are we seeing here and what level of the sort of demonic, murderous Bill that is the fantasy of the child are we seeing? And I think the most cathartic scene for Gabriel was the scene in the shed with the boy in which he says: “Why are you so angry with us?” And that basically is the real Bill, the man who was just out of his depth, dealing with this very difficult child, a man who has trouble with his wife, strains in the marriage, maybe he’s been drinking too much, maybe there are sexual problems–he’s beginning to resolve them with her, but he has to deal with this boy, who seems to be hallucinating, who seems angry at him for a murder, for murdering his wife and of course this hasn’t happened and he doesn’t know what’s going on.
David Cronenberg: Without being too schematic about it, we were really making an expressionist movie, that is to say, everything that you see in the movie is really expressing Spider’s inner state of mind. It’s not really meant to be realistic in a documentary sense. It’s meant to be evocative of this particular inner life of our main character.
David Cronenberg: Gabriel Byrne has said that this was the most difficult role he had ever played. And the reason is half the time his character is really the projection of Spider’s fantasy, of his son’s fantasy. The scene (with Miranda Richardson’s character as they walk along the canal) would never really have happened…
“Far and away the best film at Cannes. An extraordinary tour de force. One of the great films of all time!” —Amy Taubin, Film Comment
“David Cronenberg’s best direction ever.” —Elvis Mitchell, The New York Times
“A movie of stunning psychological complexity.” — Robert Denerstein, Rocky Mountain News
The movie is well made and acted, but it lacks dimension because it essentially has only one character, and he lacks dimension. We watch him and perhaps care for him, but we cannot identify with him because he is no longer capable of change and decision. He has long since stopped trying to tell apart his layers of memory, nightmare, experience and fantasy. He is lost and adrift. He wanders through memories, lost and sad, and we wander after him, knowing, somehow, that Spider is not going to get better–and that if he does, that would simply mean the loss of his paranoid fantasies, which would leave him with nothing. Sometimes people hold onto illnesses because they are defined by them, given distinction, made real. There seems to be no sense in which Spider could engage the world on terms that would make him any happier.
Consistent with the movie’s pervasive doubleness, the performances are simultaneously showy and self-effacing. Fiennes gives himself up to his part with a concentration that is almost frightening. His acting is overwhelmingly physical—almost all line readings are choked back or spat away, his eloquence is displaced into the furtive deftness with which he confronts each crisis by rolling himself a cheap cigarette. Another sort of schizo, Richardson triumphantly handles a succession of multiple roles, reappearing in various guises as dictated by the convoluted logic of Spider’s cosmology. Byrne has an even trickier job—the manifestations of Spider’s father are superficially more consistent yet no less wildly contradictory. The same holds for Bradley Hall’s boy Spider, who must lie when he tells the truth and vice versa…
Cronenberg is clearly a master. Since kissing off the venereal-horror genre that he more or less invented, the filmmaker has executed a nearly unrivaled series of aesthetic successes, almost all of them “impossible” adaptations. No less remarkably, these movies have been as visceral as they are cerebral: Dead Ringers, Naked Lunch, the film maudit M. Butterfly, Crash, and eXistenZ. Despite its source, Spider may be the most purely filmic movie of his career. Its restraint is impeccable; editing and acting provide the special effects. The material has been filtered but not overtly Cronenbergized. Spider eschews many of the director’s familiar thematic concerns to deal most explicitly with the creation of its fiction.
In many respects Patrick McGrath’s novel is too subtle for cinema, as it investigates the damage done to a young mind by trauma and heightened imagination. Fiennes remains locked into the mumbling, shuffling shell of a man who has never known freedom of expression, except when scribbling insect words into a notebook. Richardson is magnificent in all her manifestations, while Byrne has the hardest task of appearing villainous and normal at the same time. Cronenberg is not playing tricks, neither does he indulge in horror.
Plunging us into this realm, Cronenberg declines to draw clear boundary lines between illusion and reality, depicting Spider’s everyday experiences as a complex web of memories, fantasies, longings, and dreads. Gradually we realize Spider is making a desperate effort to relive and understand his past, scribbling endless notes in a small diary as he wanders through the neighborhood where he lived as a child.
Bit by bit, we penetrate some of the mystery around him. His real name is Dennis, we learn, and he got his nickname when his affectionate mother (Ms. Richardson) noticed his compulsive habit of weaving little webs from pieces of thread. His father (Gabriel Byrne) was different from his family, cold in his attitudes and cruel in his behaviors – enough to kill his wife and invite a prostitute (Richardson again) to share the family home. Or are these events too awful to be true, rooted not in Spider’s actual past but in the ravings of his unbalanced mind?
That’s for him, and us, to figure out from evidence that never stops flowing, fluxing, and shifting before our eyes.
By davidscribe at YouTube
Toronto International Film Festival 2002 photoshoot
More images from this photoshoot are available in the Gallery.
Chosen by Les Cahiers du cinéma (France) as one of the 10 best pictures of 2002 (#08, with “Sen to Chihiro no kamikakushi”)
The film was nominated for and won several awards and was shown in competition at Cannes in 2002
Samuel Beckett was one of the director’s touchstones for the film. Photographs of the playwright were pinned around the sets, and Fiennes’ hairstyle is even modeled after Beckett’s.
The website for Spider (http://www.spiderthemovie.com) is no longer available, as of November 18, 2018. It was beautifully designed, even by today’s standards, which is quite an achievement, but it has now disappeared.
Composed by Howard Shore, featuring the Kronos Quartet
Virgin Records CD Track listing
1. Love Will Find Out The Way (03:20)
2. Kitchener Street (01:21)
3. Mrs. Wilkinson’s Kitchen (00:49)
4. Gasworks (04:20)
5. Hieroglyphics (02:34)
6. Spleen Street (03:43)
7. Mrs. Cleg (03:30)
8. The Dog and Beggar (03:06)
9. The Allotments (02:38)
10. The Earl of Rochester (03:56)
11. Infected Memory (03:20)
12. Fade To Black (03:33)
Total Duration: 00:36:10
The film Spider is based on Patrick McGrath’s novel, first published in 1991. Mr. McGrath also wrote the screenplay for the film.
In this, his third elegantly macabre book, McGrath (Blood and Water, The Grotesque) provides a psychological explanation for all his Gothic weirdness and, in effect, transcends the limits of horror fiction. What results is a truly unnerving and subversive narrative–a fiction that throws most things into doubt without becoming as muddled as its narrator. Dennis “Spider” Cleg, a recently released patient from an English hospital for the criminally insane, tries to “shore up” his “shaky identity” by keeping this journal, his account of the events leading to his incarceration. And he spins a web of intrigue thoroughly convincing in motive and design. Dennis’ dear mum, a sophisticated, quiet woman who married beneath herself to a loutish plumber, is murdered by her tart-obsessed husband, who, with the whore’s help, buries her in his potato patch. The 13-year-old boy is then forced to accept his father’s bosomy companion as his new mother, which drives him only further into the recesses of his own, strange mind. Writing this journal some 20 years after the facts, Dennis, now a ratty-looking fellow living in a halfway house, soon descends again into the visual, aural, and olfactory hallucinations that characterized his youth: things go bump in the attic; he sees light-bulbs crackling; the smell of gas lingers in his nostrils. The last is a reminder of the act that marked him a lunatic–the gassing of the woman who may have been his real mother. But at this point in McGrath’s vividly bizarre re-creation of psychosis, the nagging uncertainties of the first half of the book have expanded into full-size question marks. Having seduced us with a slick mystery, McGrath leaves us helpless in his fictional hell–the internal world of an un-medicated madman who senses his inner decomposition. Maggots, spiders, and rats creep around the edges of this most compelling novel: a study in madness worthy of Poe, but in a voice wholly McGrath’s.
Thanks to Aragarna for the promotional stills!