Should I Watch..? 'Sliding Doors'
What's the big deal?
Sliding Doors is a romantic comedy-drama film released in 1998 and was written and directed by debutante Peter Howitt. The film follows the life of PR executive Helen in two different directions: one caused by catching a Tube train in time and the other caused by missing it. The film stars Gwyneth Paltrow, John Hannah, John Lynch and Jeanne Tripplehorn. The film is also notable for its soundtrack - not only featuring Aqua's UK Number One single "Turn Back Time" but also Dido's "Thank You" which inspired Eminem to produce his own hit single "Stan". Despite a mixed reception from critics, the film proved popular in the UK and US and ended up earning in excess of $58 million.
What's it about?
Over-worked PR executive Helen Quilley is about to have a very bad day. After she is fired from her job, she leaves her office building but drops an earring in the lift. Fortunately, a man is able to retrieve it for her. As she makes her way towards her Tube train on the London Underground, she just about manages to catch it in time. Suddenly, the film rewinds and shows her missing the train. The film then continues to tell Helen's story from both perspectives, showing us how something so trivial can have dramatic consequences.
Having caught the train, Helen arrives back at the flat she shares with her boyfriend Gerry to find him in bed with his ex-girlfriend Lydia. Understandably distraught at this discovery, Helen moves out to live with her friend Anna while the man who found her earring in the lift (James) continues to pop up in her life. The other Helen (who missed the train) returns home after having her bag snatched and a brief visit to hospital oblivious to Gerry's infidelity. While Gerry continues to juggle the two women, Helen's search for a new job is complicated when she discovers that she's pregnant.
Release Date (UK)
1st May, 1998
Comedy, Drama, Fantasy, Romance
What's to like?
If you're anything like me then you'll be put off by the very notion of watching a rom-com. Yes, there are some good ones but the majority are examples of lazy film-making where two good-looking actors are cast opposite each other and simply have to smoulder on cue. Be thankful then that Sliding Doors is brave enough to offer something different - its dual narrative gets some getting used to (in the end, Gwyneth has to have a haircut to help us work out which Helen is which) but it works really hard to make its unusual set-up work. Granted, it isn't a study into parallel universes or theoretical physics but it doesn't pretend to be.
Paltrow also works hard, playing two roles that are essentially the same but on different paths. His English accent is impeccable and for fans of hers (I see you!), this movie is a perfect demonstration of why she was so heavily in demand by studios at the time. Hannah, as her potential love interest, shows he learned how to play stuttering boyfriend material by watching his Four Weddings And A Funeral co-star Hugh Grant while Lynch is excessively slimy as the duplicitous Gerry. But I detected a whiff of misplaced feminism in the film - even the cheating Lydia gets a more sympathetic treatment than either of the boys. Still, if you like this sort of kitchen-sink drama then this offers two stories for the price of one.
- Funding for the film collapsed before shooting had started and it's due to Hannah that the film was made at all. He happened to be in a meeting with Hollywood legend Sydney Pollock and mentioned this film's great screenplay he was hoping to make. Pollock took an interest, read the script and funding was sorted shortly after.
- Both Minnie Driver and Gillian Anderson were considered for the role of Helen.
- Howitt makes a cameo in the film as the long-haired diner with the Liverpudlian accent who orders from Helen on her first day as a waitress. His hair had grown naturally to that length because he refused to get a haircut until he was finished with the film, some seven years after he first started to write it.
What's not to like?
Unfortunately, neither of the stories you get in Sliding Doors are particularly interesting. It's a horrible blend of broken hearts, mistaken understandings and gut-wrenching romance between actors with very little chemistry. It isn't all Paltrow's fault - the script is littered with dialogue that feels very clunky and delivered with all the passion of a cast with their families held at gunpoint off-camera. The film simply never engages with you and aside from one unnecessary twist, it never surprises you either. The only question you have is in which story will she end up with the right man and to be honest, I didn't care.
It's a shame because with the admittedly gimmicky concept, Sliding Doors could have been something special or almost unique. Instead, it feels like it could have been a one-off Sunday night drama on the BBC if it had a less glamorous leading lady. The supporting cast are fairly bland, the film doesn't have much to say besides its "look-at-me" gimmick and if I'm brutally honest, it doesn't feel like a movie. I know that sounds strange but there's no sense of excitement or spectacle behind it. It isn't helped by its confusion over which Helen we're currently watching which means that when the story begins to wrap up, you can't remember which is which. And for a film examining the difference between parallel lives, isn't that kinda the point?
Should I watch it?
Tragically, Sliding Doors doesn't do much to stand out from the usual rom-com crowd besides its intriguing set-up. It's so disappointing, not just because it wastes the use of a good idea but because neither narrative is exciting, interesting or even fun to watch. The comedy is barely noticeable and aside from Paltrow's exhausting performance, the rest of the film lacks energy and spark. Besides the inoffensive soundtrack, there's little to recommend here.
Great For: sparking debate, bored commuters, bra-burning feminists
Not So Great For: couples, theoretical physicists, men
What else should I watch?
Interestingly, the film's dual-reality story-telling idea isn't an original one. The obscure 1949 thriller The Interrupted Journey features a similar trick to Sliding Doors in that it features two parallel narratives running alongside each other, albeit in a manner that critics at the time called contrived. Other films worth a look featuring parallel lives and existences include the wonderful comedy Groundhog Day and the sci-fi thriller Source Code which sees Jake Gyllenhaal relive the same brief train journey over and over again until he thwarts a bomber.
But possibly the most famous parallel universe portrayed on film was arguably one of the first times such a concept had been explored. The Wizard Of Oz remains an unquestionably essential watch, blending both black-and-white and dazzling colour to recreate Dorothy's quest to the Emerald City along with a scarecrow, a lion and a tin man in order defeat the Wicked Witch and her terrifying flying monkeys. Given the technical limitations of the time, it's a staggering piece of film-making. I would also recommend the haunting Donnie Darko which might leave you stumped for answers but then again, it asks a lot of difficult questions.
© 2019 Benjamin Cox