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Sliding Doors

Review by Eddie Cockrell
Posted 1 May 1998

  Directed by Peter Howitt

Starring Gwyneth Paltrow, John Hannah,
John Lynch, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Zara Turner,
Douglas McFerran, Paul Brightwell,
Nina Young, and Virginia McKenna

Screenplay by Peter Howitt

Call this "The Tube Not Taken": busy Gwyneth Paltrow shines in what amounts to a dual role as British advertising executive Helen, a woman whose life unfolds in two very different directions when she simultaneously catches and misses a subway train. An estimable debut from writer-director Peter Howitt, Sliding Doors is vastly superior to the other two screen romances currently in release, the "what-were-they-thinking-of?" Wings of Desire remake City of Angels and the profoundly wretched The Object of My Affection.

Helen's double life starts after she leaves live-in boyfriend Gerry (John Lynch) for another day at the office, only to be abruptly sacked. Rushing into the London underground, she swerves around a little girl playing with a doll on the steps and narrowly misses her train. Then, in a sublimely edited bit of whimsy, she backs up the staircase, avoids the child, catches the train, and meets the sad-eyed but silver-tongued Monty Python fan James (John Hannah). Each Helen then proceeds on different paths, involving personal and professional choices that comment on a broad range of issues and topics, from fidelity to modern telecommunications to popular music (the copious name-dropping includes major references to Elton John and a sly John Lennon in-joke). In one life she comes home early and discovers Gerry with his American lover Lydia (Jeanne Tripplehorn), while in the other her hesitant relationship with James blossoms into a love that inspires her to pursue a new career.

First films often show signs of particular care and craftsmanship, and such is the case with Sliding Doors. Howitt segues neatly from a long and distinguished career as Art Director (with a filmography that includes three Oscar nominations, for Mary, Queen of Scots, Ragtime and Who Framed Roger Rabbit?) to filmmaker with grace and precision, offering a movie that stands above the pack for energy and attention to detail. Refreshingly, the movie isn't afraid to be long-winded, sporting a script that is jammed with irreverent observances and verbal flights of fancy. Although his initial nervousness prompts Howitt to underscore rather too many early scenes with that annoying wind chimy noise used to tip off audiences that something magical is happening, the stories soon take on individual lives of their own, subtly aided by such ploys as different hairstyles. It is only at the very end, when the machine that goes "ping" — as the Python lads might say — enters the picture, that the movie gets too weepy for it's own good.

Paltrow is superb, sporting a remarkably consistent British accent and giving each Helen a distinctive personality that echoes the tribulations and triumphs of the corresponding lives. Ironically, she reportedly passed on the role in Titanic that eventually went to Kate Winslet (who does a fine American accent) to make Sliding Doors. Previously known to American audiences as the gay Matthew in Four Weddings and a Funeral, the Scotland-born Hannah brings a whole bag of comic tricks to the exuberant James. And Lynch manages the tricky role of Gerry — who is required in the course of the film to be both a heartless cad and a bumbling philanderer — with the same intensity he brought to his award-winning performance as the mentally unstable Harry in the little-seen Australian drama Angel Baby. Even Tripplehorn, whose career has been saddled with such thankless credits as The Firm, Waterworld and the truly dreadful Office Killer, seems inspired by the material and responds with a performance that nicely balances humor and intensity.

Howitt has said that it took seven years and the eventual stewardship of director-producer-sometimes-actor Sydney Pollack to finally get Sliding Doors made. In a spring movie season that resembles nothing more than revolving doors — movie in, movie out — it would be only fitting if this one, pleasant, dignified and entertaining, were to stick around for awhile.

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