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Peter Howitt's Sliding Doors is a romantic fantasy blessed with such intelligence, charm and lethal wit that most viewers probably won't notice that its hip and plucky heroine, an embattled London publicist named Helen, is played by an American actress affecting a clipped British accent.
What they will notice is that there are actually two Helens--both of them portrayed by the Los Angeles-born-and-bred sylph Gwyneth Paltrow. Helen One is the Helen who, after being sacked from her job, just misses her train home, takes a taxi instead, gets mugged and arrives at the flat in time to find her worthless writer boyfriend (John Lynch) straightening up the place. Helen Two is the Helen who gets sacked, squeezes into the train in the nick of time, meets an attractive new man on board and arrives home to find her worthless writer boyfriend still in bed with an old flame from America (Jeanne Tripplehorn).
Thus do two roads diverge in a yellow wood. In an act of brilliant invention, Howitt lets Helen--and us--travel both of them. The saga of the two Helens and their parallel fates provides Paltrow most of the night-and-day options an actor dreams about and gives the audience a chance to contemplate the quirks of destiny and the accidents of timing. What if...what if. Forget Robert Frost for a moment. Instead, consider the deathless verse of one Fanny Heaslip Lea:
It's odd to think we might
Sun, moon and stars unto each
Only, I turned down one little
As you went up another.
Howitt, an English actor known for his work in Some Mother's Son and In the Name of the Father, makes his writing and directing debut with Sliding Doors and in turn makes a strong case for the depth of British education and the endurance of British taste. For my money, no Hollywood romance of recent vintage--not As Good As It Gets, not Afterglow, not what have you--features dialogue as sparkling as Howitt's, characters as vivid or, to be sure, a plot line so wonderfully schizoid. Whisk the sophistication of Noel Coward together with the anarchy of Monty Python, and you've got an approximation of our Mr. Howitt.
It didn't take the respected American director Sydney Pollack (Tootsie, Out of Africa) long to catch on. He came to read Howitt's limbo-bound script almost by chance and quickly signed on as the film's producer, champion and savior. In an industry littered with lost opportunities and wrecked dreams, here's a nice story about a worthy project pulled out of the fire.
Paltrow, who once installed nineteenth-century English manners to play Jane Austen's Emma, must be awfully happy that Pollack convinced her to return to London town. Paltrow's other movie this year was a bomb called Hush (with Jessica Lange), and here she gets to make amends. Just watch her create the gloom and doom in Helen One--reduced to waitress-hood, trapped in sour battle with a two-timing liar whom even his best friend characterizes as "a morality-free zone." Meanwhile, behold the happy flowering of Helen Two--via her gorgeous new hairdo, witty new boyfriend (John Hannah) and promising new business of her own.
That Howitt and Paltrow explore Helen's alternative paths with a minimum of technical fuss and maximum of serio-comic intrigue is a tribute to their talents. You never find yourself scratching your head in bewilderment here. Instead, you anticipate the next shift of character, the next twist of destiny, with delight. Will the two timelines, the two versions of the same woman, at last converge? Of course. But to reveal any more than that would compromise this uncommonly clever movie's deepest pleasures and emotions. Let us just say that Howitt, guiding us through the looking glass, finds darkness as well as daylight.
Paltrow is endlessly appealing and effective as the two Helens, but she's very nearly trumped by Hannah, who was previously known best in America as Matthew in Four Weddings and a Funeral. In Sliding Doors, Hannah's droll, romantic James wins our hearts (and in time, Helen's) as if by magic. But there's nothing sappy about him, and he doesn't rely on matinee-idol looks: His magnetism grows straight out of his wit, a pretty rare feat these movie days.
Thankless (albeit reasonably juicy) roles fall to Howitt's old In the Name of the Father mate Lynch, who gives the worthless philanderer Gerry just the right edge of sullen pride, and to Tripplehorn, who turns the Other Woman into a minor classic of the type: exasperated, vengeful, beautiful and bitter.
The other major co-stars in Sliding Doors are, of course, Time and Fate. Without these players, neither Howitt's twin lines of narrative nor Paltrow's double duty would amount to much. In this case, though, Time and Fate put in award-winning performances, and this gem of a romance hits all the marks. You won't find a smarter, funnier, more heartfelt movie out there this spring.
Written and directed by Peter Howitt. With Gwyneth Paltrow, John Hannah, John Lynch and Jeanne Tripplehorn.
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