Like many of Paul Schrader's films, The Comfort of Strangers is a mournful examination of decaying innocence and sexual transgression. With the alien, old-world beauty of Venice providing both the picture-perfect backdrop and the grimy emotional context, the film wanders slowly off the beaten path and into danger. Rupert Everett is appropriately callow and Natasha Richardson fittingly naïve, their English tourist protagonists led inexorably astray by the depraved Eurotrash sophisticate played by Christopher Walken. Nailing screenwriter Harold Pinter's typically elliptical, repetitive dialogue, Walken exudes sinister charm without devolving into villainous schtick. Meanwhile, Helen Mirren plays his enigmatic wife with a mixture of masochistic passivity and morbid sex appeal; of the two, her character is the far more disturbing. Unfortunately, the film's sumptuous setting and Schrader's glassy sensuality don't always mesh well with the messy subject matter. Reserved and voyeuristic, the filmmaker is content to watch the characters play out their ugly little drama from a dreamy distance. Suggestive rather than elucidative, the film lacks the moral complexities that made the subsequent Light Sleeper one of Schrader's all-time best. Nevertheless, The Comfort of Strangers has enough fine performances and intriguing ideas to satisfy fans of the director's oeuvre and of psychological thrillers in general.
by Brian J. Dillard review