Directed by David Cronenberg. Starring Robert Pattinson, Juliette Binoche, Sarah Gadon, Mathieu Almaric, Emily Hampshire, Samantha Morton, Paul Giamatti, George Touliatos 16 cert, gen release, 108 min

Cronenberg’s adaptation of DeLillo does get under the skin, but the translation from page to screen is a little too forced, writes DONALD CLARKE

IT IS PROBABLY a bit late in the day to begin criticising David Cronenberg for his coldness. For more than 40 years, the Canadian director has – despite offering us buckets of viscera – been making a virtue of distance and discipline. Masterpieces such as Dead Ringers, A History of Violence and Videodrome suggested an ordered human being who kept the shelves of his fridge clean and made sure the same relish always sat beside the same fruit juice.

With his adaptation of Don DeLillo’s Cosmopolis, Cronenberg has, however, retreated too far into neat, icy introspection. There are, of course, things to savour in the picture. Following an asset trader as he drives through a vision of New York City in terminal decay, the picture is layered with an impressive, off-centre oddness. Mathieu Amalric and Paul Giamatti bring zest and texture to their cameos. But it is hard to escape the sense that one is watching a one-act play inadequately stretched and enhanced for cinema presentation. Indeed, it is so like a play it seems remarkable that it was ever a novel.

Robert Pattinson essays vintage Cronenberg chilliness as the buttoned-down, emotionally disabled Eric Packer. We join the young financial god as he drives across the city for a haircut. His advisers warn him that, as the President is in town, the streets will be jammed with traffic. But nothing much – nothing not to do with money, anyway – gets through that shiny carapace and he embarks into chaos.

DeLillo wrote the novel, first published in 2003, partly as a response to a new class of vulgarity abroad in New York City. To that point, vast stretch limousines had been, he maintains, more of a West Coast phenomenon. In the aftermath of the dot-com boom, the streets began heaving with these unlovely vehicles. Packer’s whole world is contained within his model. He entertains lovers, enemies and financial advisers. Outside, the streets swell with rebellious maniacs.

The car-as-cocoon conceit is too literary a device to translate effectively onto screen. Whereas DeLillo could expand the space with his characteristically athletic language, the cinematic version feels limiting, monotonous and claustrophobic. Characters drop in and out of the car for no good reason. The exterior world could not look more set-bound if cables and boom microphones were visible. For a film so tied to a specific location, Cosmopolis is desperately short of a sense of place.

Moreover, the points that Cronenberg (and DeLillo) are making about the isolation of the rich seem wearyingly familiar. Didn’t Orson Welles say the same thing in Citizen Kane? Come to think of it, didn’t Charles Dickens say something similar in Dombey and Son?

And yet. Cosmopolis does eventually creep under your skin. Part of its appeal springs from its accidental topicality. Despite deriving from a novel written nearly a decade ago, Cronenberg’s film eloquently expresses certain truths about the current financial apocalypse. The sedate pace and flattened performances merely add to the sense of simmering tension and unspoken angst. The film rarely energises or shocks. But, as a quiet expression of collective neuroses, it must be considered a limited success.

For all that, one is left wondering why Cronenberg chose to adapt this (only modestly well received) novel. One is reminded of another, very different picture by the director from 20 years ago. Most everyone agreed that The Naked Lunch was about as good a film as you could make from an unfilmable novel. DeLillo’s book is not quite so forbidding as William S Burroughs’s, but one gets the same sense of a film-maker fighting manfully with a reluctant source.

Why bother? If the thing doesn’t want to be filmed, then leave it alone.