Oscar-winning drama The Salesman is tripped up by too many subplots - review

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Taraneh Alidoosti and Shahab Hosseini in the Oscar-winning drama The Salesman
Taraneh Alidoosti and Shahab Hosseini in the Oscar-winning drama The Salesman

Dir: Asghar Farhadi. Starring: Shahab Hosseini, Taraneh Alidoosti, Babak Karimi, Mina Sadati. 12A cert, 125 mins.

The first time he won an Oscar, for 2011's A Separation, Asghar Farhadi dedicated it on stage to the people of Iran, whose cinema had never been accorded this honour before. The second time, because of Trump's travel ban, he was theoretically restricted from attending, and decided to boycott the ceremony even if an exception were made. When he won, he had a letter read out by the space explorer Anousheh Ansari, referring to the "inhumane law" that had caused his absence.

A Separation was the film that propelled Farhadi to the forefront of global art cinema, as a name to conjure with or proudly grace any major festival’s competition slate. His two films since, 2013’s The Past and now The Salesman, have been similarly tangled skeins of domestic intrigue, the cinematic equivalent of what Eugène Scribe called “the well-made play”.

Farhadi works through his plots, at the very least, with joined-up precision: each successive scene tightens the knot his characters are trapped in. And his theatre background informs The Salesman more than ever. Its husband-and-wife protagonists, Emad (Shahab Hosseini) and Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti), are part-time actors playing Willy and Linda Loman in a Tehran production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, when an intruder in their new home leaves Rana with a serious head wound.

Caught up in the chaos of transferring their belongings from a structurally unsound old apartment, they’ve also had to empty out the new flat, hastily vacated as it was by a promiscuous, unmarried woman we never meet, and have dumped her possessions outside.

Taraneh Alidoosti and Shahab Hosseini in The Salesman

In the midst of all this, Rana accidentally buzzes in an unknown man, mistakenly thinking it’s her husband, and though we never see what happens when he’s let in, the incident shakes this marriage to its core.

Opting to leave us in the dark about who this man was – not even Rana says she got a clear look – Farhadi makes Emad an outraged detective, whose attempt to avenge the intrusion becomes more than a matter of uxorious protectiveness: it’s also a case of aggrieved male pride. The film’s absorbing middle section drives an unsettling rift between the couple, which Farhadi emphasises best on stage. 

Taraneh Alidoosti in The Salesman

Rana insists the show must go on, despite her obvious unfitness to act or remember her lines, and suffers a public breakdown Emad doesn’t see coming. We’re privy to whispered moments between them in mid-performance, whose charge has a meta-theatrical quality, as if we’re watching a mini-play within Miller’s: it’s a promising idea which Farhadi could have made considerably more hay with.

There were weaknesses in the third act of The Past, which Farhadi let devolve into Agatha Christie-ish mystery-solving that didn’t quite add up. Here the implicated characters are fewer, but the thesis is also thinner. A dinner Rana prepares for Emad and a young boy they’re babysitting is ruined for rather contrived reasons, and the scene as a whole is less valuable than the fresh energy this young actor brings in: Farhadi again proves himself an expert wrangler of child performances.

Taraneh Alidoosti, Farid Sajjadi Hosseini and Shahab Hosseini in The Salesman

Other subplots with Emad teaching a classroom of students – who take cheeky phone-snaps of him when he falls asleep during a film screening – explore different invasions of privacy outside the home: not only the idea of being photographed against your will, but tit-for-tat when Emad grabs the offending phone to go through it, much to the protest of its unapologetic owner. Though Rana’s damaged emotional state arguably requires too much guesswork, Emad’s easily-bruised ego, which pushes the film to its intense climax, is visible a mile off.

In Alidoosti and Hosseini, both key stars of Farhadi’s 2009 group-conscience study About Elly, and particularly the marvellous Babak Karimi as a solicitous theatre colleague, he’s picked a strong troupe who come to his rescue. All three give subtler performances than Cannes Best Actress winner Bérénice Bejo did in The Past. On this present occasion, Farhadi may hardly be reinventing himself, but his old tools serve him just fine.

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