Carnage, the latest work from one of the world's most controversial directors, Roman Polanksi, is very much the sort of film a director decides to make once the yearning for awards season recognition is mostly in the rear view, and those potentially awkward twilight years have begun to set in. That's certainly not a complaint, though, and while Polanski's latest film probably won't light up either the Academy or the box office, that ultimately takes little away from what is a marvellously constructed chamber piece, a savage comic drama adapted from Yasmina Reza's acclaimed play God of Carnage. The overwhelming majority of Carnage takes place within the confines of one apartment, owned by Michael and Penelope Longstreet (John C. Reilly and Jodie Foster), whose son was beaten viciously with a stick by another child. The other child's parents, Alan and Nancy Cowan (Christoph Waltz and Kate Winslet), swing by to discuss the incident, but when moral disagreements give way to petulant sniping, and the cokes are replaced with glasses of scotch, it becomes apparent that the adults aren't a whole lot more grown up than their kids. Adapting a theatrical work is always tricky, because if you hew too close to the source, you risk not capitalising on the advantages of the film form, but deviate too much and you might lose the essence of the original material. Polanski nimbly does neither - though this will probably please fans of the play more than general film audiences - and in fact, smartly utilises the inherent staginess of the production to help reflect the despicable artifice with which these characters cosily construct their lives for nary more than shameless ego-boosting. A scathing, biting satire of the arrogant middle-class, Reza's tale is skilfully, simply transcribed by Polanski to the screen, with the real sell being four top-tier actors ripping on each other at breakneck speed. As the parents of the attacked child, Reilly and Foster come to represent - with their self-conscious sense of artistry and culture - the pretentious aspirationalism of the middle-class, while Waltz and Winslet, the somewhat emotionally distant parents of the aggressor, are the more arrogant (and wealthy), very obviously Conservative side of the coin. Each party has more than their right to disparage the other - even if one side initially seems more correct than the other, though this quickly changes - and it results in a brilliant slanging match transpiring over an immensely concise 79-minute runtime. Potent not only as a class satire, Polanski gets at the things which bind even polar opposites - gender, for one - resulting in some unexpected partnerships; watching the husbands gulp down scotch while the wives bond over the silliness of their significant others is a delight to watch. However, don't box the film in as a simple "men are from mars..." dramatic comedy, because Polanski's film slices and dices in every direction, ensuring nobody really likes anybody else by film's end, while the couples tease out some rather unpleasant traits they probably didn't want to know about each other. Picking out a weak link here is virtually impossible, though the stronger turns of the bunch are evident pretty early on; Christoph Waltz steals the show as the no-nonsense smart-ass who makes little effort to hide his preoccupation with work, while Winslet as his wife adds another feather to her cap, not only showing off her immaculate American accent once again, but playing a wonderfully, hilariously authentic drunk, too. Foster's Penelope is by her nature the most irksome character, a sanctimonious do-gooder and none too likeable, while Reilly, oddly repeating a role similar to that of his turn in We Need to Talk About Kevin, holds his own as the optimistic mediator pretending that everything is alright. Those looking for a dense narrative had best look elsewhere, for we see the children in question only in distant bookending shots, and the film's central argument quickly devolves into a childishly unrelated one, only occasionally returning to the original point. Such is the purpose of Polanski's minimalistic piece; these people, with their smart clothes, beautiful homes and big brains are, when put in the crosshairs, little more grown up than a child armed with a stick. It's minor Polanski for sure, but fans of the actors will have a hoot watching them tear into one another. In the mayhem-for-minutes stakes, few films can dream to live up to the sheer economy of Roman Polanski's deliciously acid-tongued 79-minute chamber piece. Carnage is out now in cinemas.
Frequently sleep-deprived film addict and video game obsessive who spends more time than is healthy in darkened London screening rooms. Follow his twitter on @ShaunMunroFilm or e-mail him at shaneo632 [at] gmail.com.