Everybody Knows

EVERYBODY KNOWS. Penélope Cruz, Javier Bardem, Ricardo Darín, Bárbara Lennie, Jaime Lorente, Inma Cuesta. Directed by Asghar Farhadi. 133 minutes. Rated M (Coarse language).

‘Everybody Knows’, the eighth film from Iranian writer-director Asghar Farhadi and the first he’s made entirely in a language other than his native Persian, boasts a fertile set-up. Laura (Penélope Cruz), travelling sans husband but with her two kids in tow, is visiting her hometown in rural Spain for a family wedding when her 16-year-old daughter Irene (Carla Campra) is kidnapped. Paco (Javier Bardem), a local winemaker and friend of the family with whom Laura shares an amorous past, springs into action, determined to get to the bottom of a crime that reeks of an insider’s knowledge of the family. However, for all the promise of its premise and a pair of laudable performances from its big-name stars, ‘Everybody Knows’ doesn’t come together with much punch at all.

I’m not overselling the premise – it really is marbled with rich veins of conflict and interpersonal drama. It has a classic set-up: the crime occurs in an upstairs bedroom while the whole family is downstairs celebrating the marriage of Laura’s little sister Ana (Inma Cuesta) to Joan (Roger Casamajor). Laura, Paco and Laura’s brother-in-law Fernando (Eduard Fernández) soon deduce that specifics of the crime – such as kidnapping Irene yet leaving her little brother Diego (Iván Chavero) asleep in the bed next to her – rules out the involvement of strangers (the reason for Irene’s targeting were not known outside the familial fold). Newspaper cuttings from an old, unsolved kidnapping murder in the area are left on Irene’s bed, possibly hinting at some sort of serial conspiracy. Laura receives a text warning that Irene’s survival relies on the payment of a €300,000 ransom and on the police not being involved, leaving her and Paco to do the legwork. Finally, the footage shot by a local outfit for Ana and Joan’s wedding video, including video from an aerial drone, provides a hotbed of possible clue for our amateur sleuths to pore over.

The relationships prove even juicier, laden with unresolved and simmering tensions. There’s the unaired anger of Laura’s family toward Paco, narrated by Laura’s father (Ramón Barea) after a few too many drinks, stemming from what they perceive as Laura’s cut-price sale of her plot of the family land to Paco. Paco has his own bones to pick with them, partially because he grew up alongside Laura and her siblings as the son of the family cleaner and still harbours a classist inferiority complex, but also because they refuse to acknowledge the years of hard labour he and his wife Bea (Bárbara Lennie) put into transforming the barren acreage into a productive vineyard. There’s also the romantic tension between Paco and Laura, the ripples of which are still expanding outwards into their lives. Things at home aren’t as rosy as they first appear for Laura, and with her wealthy husband Alejandro (Ricardo Darín) at home in Argentina, Laura’s vulnerability to the criminal and her past passion is heightened. The movie’s title stems from the pair’s history, because as Paco’s nephew tells Irene, in their village, “everybody knows” about their adolescent dalliance.

And yet (there’s that most fateful word, “yet”), the film quickly loses its grip. Their investigation doesn’t seem to progress at all, instead stagnating while focus switches to the emotional toll of this crime. It’s not strictly a whodunnit nor does it need to be, but it strides out so confidently in that direction in its opening that the disappearance of the investigation plot feels like a dereliction of duty. So, while this feels a little like a bait and switch, it shouldn’t sound the death knell for the picture – there is still plenty to be explored in the interpersonal drama. However, even these threads seem to be ignored after Farhadi’s screenplay drops its solitary bombshell of a twist, with Laura devoured by grief and Paco’s agency soon side-tracked by his attempts to help scrape the ransom together. Even after all this, ‘Everybody Knows’ is the kind of film that lives and dies on the strength of its denouement, but even this is lacklustre, limping to a frustrating, thoroughly unsatisfying finale that drags somewhat too. Observed from afar, the narrative is hollow, with no major characters ending the story more informed about the crime than they began it. In fact, the most interesting material in the second and third acts literally starts to take place as the screen fades out to the credits.

For all the problems with screenplay, Farhadi can still work his magic with actors, even through the formidable language barrier. His cast does strong, genuinely emotive work with the material, even when it veers close to mawkishness. In particular, Bardem and Cruz’s chemistry convinces (one might expect this to be assured between the real-life husband and wife pairing, though cinema history suggests that this is far from an ironclad guarantee). By the end of the movie, you absolutely buy their journey together over the decades.

Farhadi’s best known film, ‘A Separation’, which garnered him his first of two Oscars for Best Foreign Language Film, followed a series of legal stoushes between a married couple which soon expand to include their domestic worker. Its layered screenplay received much well-deserved praise for its precise and intelligent control of information and unexpected plotting, and for its opening act, ‘Everybody Knows’ looks to follow down the same, well-written path. However, once the wheels fall off after the first act, the entire enterprise switches track and grinds on grimly without much pleasure.

Callum Ryan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.

Out March 7.

Universal Pictures.

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