RogerBW's Blog

Sliding Doors 05 December 2014

1998, dir. Peter Howitt, Gwyneth Paltrow, John Hannah: IMDb / allmovie

A woman just fired from her job does, or does not, catch a particular Underground train, and does, or does not, catch her boyfriend in bed with another woman; her life diverges from that point, and we see both halves.

The conceit is a science-fictional one, or more properly fantastic; like Groundhog Day, we never learn why the split happened or explore the implications of it. In fact, most of what we get here is fairly conventional romantic comedy; the split is used to juxtapose a series of situations from one timeline with those on the other, and even when Helen's two lives are going in entirely different directions, a quick cut from one to the other shows surprising parallels. However, neither timeline can really carry the story on its own, and thinking about them separately shows how much the trick is needed to make the thing work.

What saves it, when the plots begin to drag, is the excellent cast, starting with Paltrow in an early starring role as Helen. Two roles, in fact, since her personality diverges based on whether or not she experiences the early betrayal; "hurt Helen" is rather more assertive and, frankly, interesting than "naïve Helen" who continues to ignore the warning signs. (Perhaps that divergence is a bit too sudden to be realistic? But it allows us to enjoy Paltrow's acting talents, so I'll forgive it.)

The two beaux in Helen's life are not quite as impressive, though suitably sleazy in one case and effectively both raw and comical in the other (John Hannah, who went on to be in a variety of films I haven't seen). But it's the minor cast who really grabbed me, particularly Zara Turner as Helen's friend to whom she turns for sympathy against her cheating boyfriend, and Douglas McFerran as said boyfriend's friend Russell who steals every one of the few scenes he's in. They make a telling set of opposites in their reactions to their friends' troubles, and it's a shame some way couldn't have been found to have them meeting.

Jeanne Tripplehorn as the scheming Other Woman is less successful, particularly towards the end where she borrows an off-screen teleportation ability and perfect knowledge of things she can't see that would be more conventionally used by a slasher-movie villain. But even before she becomes a plot device, she feels like a plot device, always doing just the right thing to keep the story moving.

This is entertainment that manages to be light while avoiding being mindless, a tricky tradeoff which it gets very nearly perfectly right.

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  1. Posted by Owen Smith at 12:18pm on 06 December 2014

    I watched this film many years ago, it might even have been at the cinema. I agree it manages a nice balance, and Paltrow is excellent in it.

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