"What do you have to do to get some intimacy around here!?" bellows Clive Owen in Mike Nichols' Closer, an absorbing drama about the lies we tell each other and ourselves. Jude Law, Julia Roberts and Natalie Portman form the other corners in a romantic quadrangle in which the dynamics shift dramatically over a period of years. Although it lacks the emotional punch that would have made it great, this remains a hard-hitting look at the fragility of relationships.
Obituary writer Dan (Jude Law) is on his way to work when Alice (Natalie Portman) suddenly appears out of the London crowd and is just as suddenly knocked down by a car. He escorts her to hospital and from there develops a romance that will inspire his debut novel. Cut to Julia Roberts as Anna, a photographer who falls for Dan's charms when she's hired to snap his headshot. Initially reluctant to start an affair, she distracts herself with Larry (Clive Owen), a doctor inadvertently introduced to her through Dan. But as the years pass, insecurities bubble to the surface in both relationships, sparking a four-way tug of love.
With its central theme of sexual jealousy and a willingness to probe the sometimes seedy and pathetic nature of desire - best exemplified in a scene where Portman strips for Owen - this is demanding stuff. However, there's also a surprising amount of humour between the heavy confrontations, like Anna's initial meeting with Dan who mistakenly believes her to be a sex fiend he encountered in an internet chatroom.
All the performances are strong, with Portman especially fearless and Owen simply fearsome as a man driven by his base instincts. Disappointingly Nichols' clinical approach fails to elicit deep empathy for any of these characters whose foibles are intended to reflect us all. Like them, Closer frustratingly stops short of true intimacy.