Another late addition to the first phase of 2019, you can blame this film on a sudden eruption of the ‘sliding doors’ trope in the press I was reading, triggering memories, triggering memories of the film (but not that it was over twenty years ago that I went to see it for the only previous occasion), added to the instant availability of the DVD dirt cheap via eBay.
Sliding Doors has a very simple premise that is fascinating to me because it illustrates a major theme in much of my thinking, with particular reference to my Tempus Trilogy (three novels, also available individually). Gwyneth Paltrow, about whom much has been said but who here was in the fullest flight of her acting career, and also looked realistically gorgeous throughout, plays Helen Quilley, a PR person, living with the sponging would-be novellist Gerry (John Lynch) who, unbeknownst to Helen, is carrying on an affair with his American ex-girlfriend Lydia (Jeanne Tripplehorn).
Lydia gets fired from her job and sets off home. Rushing into a Tube station, she just misses the train: a little girl who wants to walk her dolly up the handrail steps into her path, forcing Helen to check and go round her: the doors slide shut in her face. There is a flash, and time and the film unreel for ten seconds, taking Helen back to the top of the stairs. The little girl turns towards the handrail, but her mother pulls her away. Helen’s path is not impeded, she grabs the door as it is closing, steps in.
The film now splits into two parallel and different time-tracks, the narrative bouncing between the two in often very brief scenes. One Helen finds herself being pestered on the Tube by James Hammerton (John Hannah), who has already had a brief acquaintance with her – her earring fell off in the lift as she was leaving her ex-company’s building and he picked it up – which he uses to chat to her. He’s fast-talking, with an antic sense of humour, and barely seems able to say a serious thing, enough so that whilst she really doesn’t want to be bothered by anyone, he does make something of an impression on her. He jokes about her situation, referencing Monty Python – “You mean, always look on the bright side of life?” “No, nobody expects the Spanish Inqisition!”
This Helen arrives home unexpectedly early, finds Lydia on top of Gerry, walks out, gets drunk, bumps into James again in the bar and, when her best friend Anna (Zara Thornton) collects her to take her back to her place, James offers them both a lift in his taxi.
The other Helen takes longer to get home: a serious Tube delay is announced, she leaves to find a taxi, someone attempts to steal her bag, she falls and hits her head, requires stitches, and doesn’t get back until late afternoon, her taxi passing Lydia’s car as it pulls in. Gerry is all alone. He takes her out to get drunk, to the same bar other Helen goes (there is some potentially confusing but expertly timed cutting from one time-track to the other around the constancy of the bar, and James and his mate stood talking at it). In order to keep the money coming in, there being no PR jobs going, Helen takes on two part-time jobs, sandwich deliverer and waitress.
In order that we should not be confused as to which track we are on, Director and writer Peter Howitt distingusishes between the two Helens, first by the strip of tape over the head-wound of one, and the red dress this version has changed into and then, on a longer term basis, by having Anna persuade the Helen who’s found out into a change of image, hair cut short, dyed blonde, whilst the oblivious Helen retains her shoulder-length light-brown hair, thus enabling me to distinguish between Blonde Helen and Brunette Helen.
It’s obvious that the two tracks, represented by light and dark hair respectively, are meant to be seen as positive and negative experiences. Blonde Helen, at first still emotionally tied to Gerry, finds herself pursued by James, accepting him as a friend who makes her laugh, introduces her to nice people, gives her good times, encourages her to set up her own PR film and finds her her first client. All of this is done at arm’s length, as friends: she is too aware of rebounds and things being too soon, although it is her who kisses him first and that leads to sex. Up and up.
Brunette Helen’s life is the opposite. She’s working two exhausting, demanding jobs, neither of which have any hope of advancement, Gerry – a moral morass with the spine of a snake and much of its trustworthiness – is still cheating on her, she demoralised, despairing and edging into suspicion that she’s being undermined.
Oh, and she’s pregnant by him although, what with one thing and another, he doesn’t give her chance to tell him.
Blonde Helen also suffers a setback. Gerry, trying to get her back, turns up at her first successful launch. he kisses her, which James sees. Next thing, James disappears on a business trip to Newcastle, and his secretary’s not being helpful. Helen makes a final break with Gerry, when she finds he’s not, after all, finished it with Lydia, but she’s now afraid that she’s blown it with James, who she realises she loves. Oh, and Blonde Helen is also pregnant. By James.
The endgame approaches. Brunette Helen is growing more and more suspicious but she has a job interview, for PR, at this CEO’s flat. The CEO is Lydia. It’s to force Gerry into a decision, because Lydia is also pregnant by him.
Blonde Helen catches up with James but they’re awfully awkward. Then she finds out he’s married. When he discovers she knows, he frantically chases all over, looking for her, finds her on a London Bridge in deep rain. The truth is awkward: technically James is married, but they separated amicably six months ago and are getting divorced. Claudia maintains the pretence in front of James’ very ill mother, as a favour to him.
Blonde Helen learns the truth outside in the rain. She is happy. And then she’s knocked down by a car. Brunette Helen learns the truth inside, on a landing. She is devastated. She runs away and falls down the stairs. Twin ambulances take two Helens to one hospital. Both lose their babies. Both are in comas. One dies.
This is where I find fault with the film, for lacking the imagination to find another ending. The ending is that one time-track disappears, leaving only the other. The concluded time-track is inevitably tarred as the ‘not-real’ one, as it leaves no trace of its existence. It becomes, by default, the fantasy, the immaterial in every respect, though the film then tries to have its cake and eat it in the final shot. I understand all the thinking behind this, and on a critical level I applaud the decision to make Blonde Helen’s life the fantasy: the romance, the positivism, the joy and the attendant heartbreak that it is she who flatlines, in James’ arms.
But to choose to ultimately make one time-track unreal, the film undercuts its own concept (even if that concept is borrowed, at cousinly remove, from It’s a Wonderful Life‘s Pottersville sequence). It reduces the film by giving it a romantic comedy, and a very effective one, at it’s heart and then dismissing it as a fantasy. The film should have found a way to make both stories real, because in our real lives, we are constantly subjected to Sliding Doors moments, not only to major effect. The film scores highly by turning things upon so random and minor a point: it’s an exploration of Chaos Theory, the Butterfly Effect. But it only works as long as both halves had equal weight. Not to find a way to maintain that is the film’s cop-out.
And it doesn’t help itself by trying to borrow back it’s fake life. Blonde Helen dies, Brunette Helen lives. Gerry’s all apologetic over his behaviour, will do anything she says. In cold, impersonal tones she invites him to stand up, go out, shut the door and never come back. James emerges from his mother’s room in the same Hospital. She’s getting better, just as Blonde Helen predicted.
Brunette Helen gather her things and walks towards the lifts. They slide shut in her face. Time does not re-run. The next lift arrives. As she gets in, she loses an earring. The man in the lift picks it up for her. It is, of course, James. He mentions what Monty Python says. Automatically, Helen replies, “Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!” As they turn to look at each other in surprise, the camera freezes. The audience’s expectations leap ahead.
Part of me, that wants merely to be entertained emotionally, approves. The rest of me, that doesn’t like being manipulated, sucks in his teeth. We’re supposed to believe that Blonde Helen’s story is about to roll out in ‘real life’, whilst the Director is hurriedly blowing smoke in our eyes in the hope that we’ll forget what the whole film is about. Helen and James aren’t meeting on a tube train, she isn’t living with a cheating bastard, she’s not only just been fired. If a sliding door moment of such triviality has produced two disconnected lives that differed so much, then on what basis can Helen and James’ meeting at a very different time, under radically different circumstances lead to a direct copy of their romantic odyssey?
Answer: it can’t. Which is why the film rushes off into the distance, blinding us with a blur that might well work on those who don’t write about time travel and parallel worlds and fractal micro-dimensions.
Still, I really do love the film, and if Helen Quilley doesn’t want James Hammerton, I’d buy her a drink. This really was twenty years ago, you know. I’m still kidding myself that she’d accept, mind you.