Here is a high concept: how would someone's destiny turn out if one moment in their life went differently – if, say, they did not manage to catch the train home?
The big challenge for any filmmaker is: how do you actually show and convey this tricky idea?
Do you simply tell the same-but-different story in two consecutive versions, as Italo Calvino and Julio Cortázar did in literature, or Kieslowski and Godard have done in cinema? Do you juxtapose the two parallel life-paths in editing, or on a split screen? Do you wrap the whole structure in a handy conceit – like the protagonist dreaming, or experiencing a near-death experience, or writing their autobiography?
In Sliding Doors, this is how it happens. Helen (Gwyneth Paltrow) misses her train. Then – rather joltingly – the film 'rewinds' and shows her catching the same train. From that point, writer-director Peter Howitt alternates between his two stories.
Both tales revolve around the same basic elements. Helen's boyfriend Gerry (John Lynch) is an amoral cad of the highest order, fooling around with his ex-flame Lydia (Jeanne Tripplehorn). In one plane of narrative reality, Helen does not discover this for some time. In the other, she discovers it immediately and bumps straight into the charming and sensitive James (John Hannah) – who turns out to have a secret of his own.
Howitt creates some diverting fun from the way he constantly compares and contrasts similar situations in both stories – such as the helpfully down-to-earth reactions of the main characters' respective best friends. The two strands resemble each other so closely at times that it is easy to become momentarily confused about what is happening in which reality – but that, too, is part of the enjoyment.
Ultimately, the high concept of Sliding Doors does not bear much scrutiny. Rather than any European art movie that has explored such terrain, it recalls those jazzy entertainments of the swinging '60s like Two for the Road (1967) – romantic comedies about the Book of Love that find a smart, slightly new way to sing the same old song.
The true appeal of this movie can only be appreciated with a large, sympathetic audience. Beyond its mild preying on all of our modern fears about love, sex and commitment, its success depends on milking a very British sense of humour which is in equal parts sardonic and daggy, complete with affectionate references to Elton John and Monty Python.
Howitt's love-gone-wrong sensibility never plumbs the earnest depths of a Hollywood romance like An Affair to Remember (1957) – or even a British classic from another era such as Brief Encounter (1945) – but it definitely has the wherewithal to charm an Australian crowd.
MORE Howitt: Laws of Attraction
© Adrian Martin July 1998