Opening on the internal gears and movements of an old clock tower marked with the initials of young lovers carved into the wall, Iranian director Asghar Farhadi’s latest drama Everybody Knows is concerned with time, and more specifically, how the impact of the past can continue to influence behaviour in the present.
When Laura (Penélope Cruz), a local woman who left her small village home outside of Madrid to marry a wealthy older man (Ricardo Darín), returns from Argentina for her sister’s wedding, the effects of time are evident – she observes that her father has “gotten old”, and hears how the local church requires additional repairs beyond the ones her husband Alejandro has already paid for. The promise of the future can be felt through the youth of the town, with teenagers flying drones to film the wedding reception and Laura’s daughter, Irene (Carla Campra), disrupting the service by playfully ringing the church bells as she flirts with a local boy. When Irene is kidnapped that evening, the past opens up as evidence begins to suggest that Irene was taken by someone known to her family, and it causes old resentments and secrets to resurface. Local wine-maker, Paco (Javier Bardem), Laura’s childhood boyfriend, is also caught up in this chaos; his attempts to help save Irene are met with suspicion from both Laura’s family and his own wife, as they question his motives and history with Laura.
Farhadi utilises the natural chemistry between real-life couple Bardem and Cruz for dramatic effect, and it marks the fifth time they have acted opposite each other on screen (Cruz won the Oscar for their second collaboration Vicky Cristina Barcelona ). When their characters reunite in the film, the two playfully reminisce about Paco’s wild youth, telling stories of how he used to climb to the roof of the church, and their connection grows after Irene’s kidnapping: Laura regularly turns to Paco for comfort when she struggles to communicate with her husband. Both performers shine in their own right; Cruz’s frenzied performance when she discovers Irene’s disappearance makes for the film’s stand-out scene. Here, you see her fear turn to desperation as Laura’s knocks on her daughter’s locked door go unanswered; to panic as she moves through the wedding party calling her name; to hysteria when the kidnappers make contact, threatening murder if the police are notified. But it’s Bardem’s Paco who carries much of the second half of the movie, as his initial flaunts of natural charisma quickly fall away to reveal an insecure vulnerability, and he struggles with deciding how much he should sacrifice to help a family that still views him as a “servant’s son”.
Despite his leads’ strong performances, Farhadi’s script never quite reaches the high bar of dramatic tension and revelations that shine in his other films. The writer-director has proved his skill at gradually developing drama through internal reveals, such as how the marriage between Simin and Termeh dissolves over the course of his Oscar-winning A Separation (2011). But for a film where time plays such a central motif, there’s a disappointing lack of urgency during Everybody Knows’ runtime, which clocks in at over two hours. Irene’s kidnappers send the occasional demanding message and there are talks of “buying more time” to save Irene, but for the most part, we simply watch on passively as Laura’s family bring up old slights: primarily, their belief that Paco once took advantage of his relationship with Laura to purchase land from her for a cheap, unfair price.
There are specks of darkly intriguing questions, with an investigation into the kidnapping from retired policeman Jorge (José Ángel Egido) casting suspicion on Paco’s wife, Bea (Bárbara Lennie), Alejandro, and others, but these suspicions aren’t explored in enough depth and often dismissed by the next scene. Against the personal dramas between families, Irene’s kidnappers fade into the background, and, frustratingly, their identities revealed almost casually, making their presence a mere plot device to prompt the arguments between Laura, her family, and Paco.
All the pieces were in place for Everybody Knows to be more than it was, but the film feels like it’s reaching for greatness while just missing the mark. The cast is without a weak link; José Luis Alcaine’s cinematography immerses the audience within the heat, dust, and vibrancy of its small-town Spanish setting without being intrusive – remaining objective while letting the emotions of the performers speak for themselves; the plot itself is rife with inherent tension. But once he’s established the premise, Farhadi takes too long leaving the tensions to peter out, and it never reaches a much-needed emotional climax.
Everybody Knows is now showing in Australian cinemas.
Angus Attwood graduated from the VCA in 2018 with a masters degree in Film and Television. He has published articles on cinema and pop culture in Peephole Journal, The Big Issue magazine, and the AACTA website.