The civilised trappings of a dinner party or a meal in a high-class restaurant provide a fertile setting for drama. The characters are immediately under our gaze, contriving, at first, to be nice or at least polite to each other. The food looks inviting on the table, while the talk, with any luck, is going to be sharp and layered with malice.
By the end of the evening, when the wine has flowed sufficiently, we can be sure a number of secrets will be laid bare, and things said that can never be retracted. Husband, wives and partners will have cast aside their normal social prudence, and revealed themselves in all their pitiable vanity.
So it is with the quartet of adults who make up the cast of The Dinner (★★, cert 15, 120 mins), written and directed by Oren Moverman from the bestselling novel by Herman Koch. The celebration in question, in a luxurious (but hideously pretentious) restaurant, has been arranged by wealthy politician Stan Lohman (Richard Gere), currently running for state governor, in order to thrash out some current “family problems” with his younger brother Paul (Steve Coogan). He in turn is married – second time round – to a loving wife Claire (the charming Laura Linney).
Paul is a high-school history teacher – an expert on the Battle of Gettysburg – who has anger issues. Evidently the siblings’ parents were unstable, and this inheritance has descended to the younger brother in the shape of a cynicism so extreme as to border on mental illness. One wonders how Claire can put up with him. (But she, it turns out, has secrets of her own.)
The last of the quartet is the most conventionally glamorous: Stan’s “trophy wife” Kate (Rebecca Hall). Certainly she has problems of her own – most of which are connected with her husband’s roving eye – but she is more distanced than the others from the Lohman family’s original psychic trauma, and her chief role here is that of a peacemaker.
The immediate cause of the crisis emerges over the course of the meal (presented in episodes signalled by captions written in flowery menu-style calligraphy: “aperitif”, “main course”, “cheese board”, “digestive” etc. The only problem is, we never see the characters eating anything).
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