Written and Directed by Peter Howitt
Starrring Gwyneth Paltrow, John Hannah, John Lynch, Jeanne Tripplehorn
We've all played "What If . . . ?": "What if I had taken that other job?" "What if I had not dated that person?" It's a common trope in science fiction* and also historical fiction.** It doesn't often appear in a mainstream film, especially in its purest form. Sliding Doors uses the conceit to tell a solid dramatic story.
It's the story of Helen Quilley (Gwyneth Paltrow) who has just been fired from her PR job. As she rushes for the London Underground,*** she just barely catches her train, and returns to find her boyfriend Gerry (John Hannah) in bed with his ex-girlfriend Lydia (Jeanne Tripplehorn).
But there's another time line, one where Helen is delayed and misses the train. By the time she arrives home, Lydia is long gone, and Helen continues with Gerry, and we see how her life diverges, especially as she keeps running into James (John Hannah).
Writer/director Howitt comes up with some nice little twists and dramatic complications using the theme. I especially liked the way he was able to keep the two versions of Helen separate, first by having her wear a bandage**** and later with hair styles. The plot is a bit surprising as it twists to an ending that you never see coming.
I've liked Gwyneth Paltrow as an actress, and this is just another solid role for her. She's good at playing conflicted women and this is just another chance for her to show herself. The rest of the cast is also very good, showing the differences in their characters in each timeline.
The movie did all right at the box office, boosted by its success in the U UK. But for some reason, Peter Howitt didn't film a script of his for nine years, and that didn't make much of a splash. He also helmed the notable disaster Johnny English, which may have taken its toll on his career.
The film stands out, though, as an interesting musing on what might have been in one person's life.
* The basis for many Golden Age stories: "What if the people only saw the stars every thousand years?" "What if we could teleport?" "What if a human child was raised by Martians?"
**Harry Turtledove has made a career with the question.
***Not a political movement, Otto.
****This was done for a similar reason with the most speculated-upon bandage in modern film: the one on the back of Marcellus Wallace's neck in Pulp Fiction. Tarantino has said it was because Ving Rhames had a cut on the back of his neck, but I think that's a bit disingenuous. If you note in the film, we never see Wallace's face until Butch spots him crossing the street after he has refused to take a dive. And that's a very important moment: the audience needs to understand immediately that the man crossing the street -- whose face we haven't seen yet -- is Marcellus Wallace. The bandage on the back of the neck solves this problem with brilliant elegance.