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by: Scott Renshaw

A woman, just fired from her job as a London public relations executive, rushes dejectedly towards the Underground, eager to return to the comfort of home. A young girl steps into her path for a moment, impeding the woman's progress just long enough so that she misses the last train before a long, system-wide delay. Or does she? What if the girl doesn't get in the woman's way, permitting her to make that last train? How much does that one, seemingly inconsequential variable change the woman's life?

Sliding Doors is a gimmick film, the gimmick being that it allows us to watch both alternate courses determined by that one moment. When Helen Quilley (Gwyneth Paltrow) makes the train, she meets a charming fellow named James (John Hannah), and also gets home in time to catch her layabout live-in boyfriend Gerry (John Lynch) in the middle of a little afternoon delight with his ex-girlfriend Lydia (Jeanne Tripplehorn). When she misses the train, she and Gerry continue together, taking Helen down a radically different career path.

Sliding Doors works on enough different levels that I wonder whether it succeeds because of its gimmick or in spite of it. As a straightforward relationship comedy, it's generally delightful, crafted by writer/director Peter Howitt with unusually sharp comic dialogue. The principal characters are uniformly well-drawn, from the unsteady confidence of Paltrow's Helen, to the genial wit of Hannah's James, to the confused and almost sympathetic philandering of Lynch's Gerry. Even a minor supporting performance from Douglas McFerran as James' no-nonsense best friend shines with energy and humor. Howitt explores familiar modern romance territory, but does it with enough intelligence and commitment to the characters that it feels fresh.

Of course, he's also playing an extended game of "what if", one which sometimes intrudes on the perfectly enjoyable conventional narrative. Though rookie director Howitt handles the interplay between the story-lines with surprising deftness, the shifts from one plot to the other often deny both plots momentum. Nowhere is this more evident than during a pair of climactic confrontations, where Howitt cuts back and forth to the point of distraction. He may be intending to build tension, but instead he builds frustration, using neck-stapping editing to show the pivotal moments occurring simultaneously while sacrificing dramatic urgency. A version of Sliding Doors which offered a simple, smartly-written romantic triangle might have been just as winning without all the fuss.

It's also true that something would have been lost. Though at first glance Sliding Doors seems to flirt with the celebration of fate and destiny so popular in recent love stories, Howitt offers something a bit more thought-provoking than that. By allowing us to get to know the characters -- and Helen in particular -- as well as he does, he gives us much more reason to believe that destiny is simply the tendency of people to act according to their character. Helen's determination, pride and sense of self-worth are what make it likely that any course of her life will have a happy ending, not the capricious opening or closing of a pair of sliding doors on a train. The film may be a bit of speculative gimmickry, but it's also something more -- and less -- than that. In some alternate reality, Peter Howitt may have made Sliding Doors a romantic comedy without a gimmick. Like Helen's life, it's hard to know for sure which version would have been more engaging and appealing.

On the Renshaw scale of 0 to 10 fate accomplishments: 7.


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