Sliding Doors

Sliding Doors by Peter Howitt is what they used to call —
perhaps they still do — a stylish comedy, but it also has that little metaphysical kick that the movies occasionally
give us, that sense of the supernatural somehow brought down to earth, domesticated and made familiar to us
that only celluloid can confer. Sometimes, as in the great Groundhog Day, this is
fantastically successful; Sliding Doors is not successful on that level.
We never quite get the sense that something really important is being said, in
this strange and unfamiliar world, about our world, which I take to be
the measure of real artistic success. Howitt’s exercise strikes us as being more
an example of cleverness than profundity. Still, it is very clever, quite
funny in parts, and nearly always enjoyable. And for a while it begins to seem
as if it is going to have something serious to say about relationships. This it
never quite gets round to doing.

The thesis is that a young woman called Helen (Gwyneth Paltrow) gets sacked
from her job with a PR firm, decides to go home, and either just catches or just
misses a train on the London Underground. The film rather boldly decides to
pursue both eventualities simultaneously. First we see her, having caught the
train, being chatted up by a young Scot called James (John Hannah) and giving
him the cold shoulder. Cut to her missing the train. An announcement says that
there are to be delays on the District Line, so she goes back up to the street
to take a taxi. While she is waiting for a taxi, she is mugged and her head is
cut by a fall against a tree. The taxi driver takes her to the hospital to get a
couple of stitches.

Cut back to her having caught the train. She gets off without incident at the
same stop as James, and she apologizes for being so stand-offish. She is in a
bad mood because she has just lost her job. They part on good terms. She returns
to her flat and finds her boyfriend, Jerry (John Lynch) in bed with another
woman, Lydia (Jeanne Tripplehorn). Cut back to the train-misser. She is delayed
by her encounter with the mugger and her trip to the hospital. She arrives home
rather later to find the boyfriend in the shower and nothing untoward beyond a
couple of unexplained brandy snifters on a sideboard.

The two Helens continue to take turns. Helen number one, the train catcher,
leaves the boyfriend to go and stay with her friend Anna (Zara Turner). She
meets James again in a bar and they begin an affair. She has a makeover and,
encouraged by James, starts her own PR firm which is almost immediately
successful. Meanwhile Helen number two, the train misser, is still with the
boyfriend, who continues to sneak around on her. She continues depressed and
gets a job as a waitress. Jerry pours out his feelings of guilt to his mate,
Russell (Douglas McFerran), who very wisely laughs at him. Russell’s uproarious
laughter at his sheepish friend’s confessions is the best thing in the film and,
along with the unfailingly sprightly and witty dialogue, gives us the sense of a
healthy detachment from some of the heavier implications of the events unfolding
before us.

Not that these are quite ignored. At first it seems that we are headed in one
of two possible directions. The most obvious is towards the conclusion that it
was much better for Helen to catch Jerry in the act, leave him and get started
on a new life. It would also be better for Jerry because it would put an end to
his furtiveness and his guilt, which is a blight on the lives of both of them.
The less obvious direction is towards a renewal of Jerry’s and Helen’s
relationship, since Lydia proves to be a witch and Jerry much more attached to
Helen than he realizes. When we find out that James already has a wife that he
hasn’t told Helen about, it begins to seem as if she had to catch him and break
up with him for that relationship to be rebuilt, since James is obviously
a dead end too and Jerry is pining away for her.

But then things change again. Maybe James isn’t quite what he seems. Jerry is
hopelessly feckless and indecisive. Both Helen and Lydia get pregnant in both
stories, but while Lydia is both times pregnant by Jerry, Helen number one is
pregnant by James and Helen number two is pregnant by Jerry. Then both Helens
have an accident, though it is a different accident in each case. What will
become of them? Who is the right man for her? I will not disguise the fact that
I think the ending an unsatisfactory resolution of such a clever superfluity of
narration, but perhaps no ending would have been any better. In the end, there
just wasn’t enough reason for Howitt’s telling these two stories apart from
showing he could do it.

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