Ralph Fiennes and Tilda Swinton – two actors who serve as shorthand for quality. Italian director Luca Guadagnino’s A Bigger Splash grabs both stars at an intriguing point in their careers: each has recently shown that they’re happy to let go and have some fun in their films. Tilda Swinton has gone from rock and roll vampire in Only Lovers Left Alive through a peculiar Mary Whitehouse impersonation in Snowpiercer to an unexpected and hilarious appearance in Amy Schumer vehicle Trainwreck last year. Fiennes, meanwhile, has been extremely busy on the London stage and still managed to squeeze in an unforgettably funny performance in the brilliant The Grand Budapest Hotel. This new film, a darkly comic thriller inspired by 1969 classic La Piscine, allows them both to showcase a different, equally impressive side to their skills and sees them truly at the top of their games.
It’s the performances that will really stick in your head once A Bigger Splash is over. The film tells the story of seemingly happy couple Marianne and Paul whose lives are shaken up when her ex-lover Harry Hawkes and his daughter come to visit. Fiennes is a true live wire, all flailing limbs and verbal diarrhoea as the outwardly confident Harry. He is simultaneously the most charming and the most irritating person on-screen, but the actor gives a magnetic performance in the role that keeps drawing your eyes back to him. He’s totally convincing as the passionate ex-lover that Swinton’s character eventually must have got too exhausted to carry on with, and – who cares if it’s a cliché? – Fiennes really does light up the entire film. Swinton is just as good as rock star Marianne Lane, overcoming the challenge of barely speaking above a whisper over the course of the movie (a result of a throat condition brought on by her career): she can convey so much without needing to open her mouth that this gimmicky character trait barely manages to slow her down. As the two other corners of this strange square, Matthias Schoenaerts (Rust and Bone, Far From The Madding Crowd) and Dakota Johnson (Fifty Shades of Grey) lend strong support too and refuse to let themselves be bulldozed by Fiennes and Swinton. Schoenaerts is the most likeable of the four as sensitive, relatively stable young photographer Paul while Johnson (as Harry’s daughter Penny) is wonderfully languid and sly, with a gift for delivering withering stares.
It’s just a shame that A Bigger Splash never quite manages to bring all of its elements together and become more than the sum of its parts. Director Guadagnino is obviously great at coaxing striking performances from his actors, but for some reason everything we see and hear is bogged down with a symbolic weight that doesn’t ever amount to all that much. There are strange subplots galore (why does the refugee crisis get shoehorned in?), and each scene builds up an effective tension only for it all to deflate. It all comes across as a film that doesn’t really know what it wants to be, so throws in way too much in order to compensate, from the ominous gathering storm to the weird statues dotted around Marianne and Paul’s villa. However, that doesn’t mean it isn’t relentlessly entertaining too – well-paced, well-acted and interesting enough to keep you on board – so I’m torn. Some of the left-field moments work really well: a dark filter being placed over the lens while Paul is wearing sunglasses is a clever little idea. But it’s also hard to know what to think about A Bigger Splash, leading me to feel like it should have been simplified to get its point across a bit better. I wouldn’t be surprised if I’m still talking about Ralph and Tilda when it comes to picking my favourite performances of 2016 at the end of the year, but I may well be wishing they had been in a film that matched their sterling work in it.