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In a plot construct that virtually defines "high concept," director/writer Peter Howitt has concocted a pretty damned fine idea: Gwyneth Paltrow stars as Helen, a woman who gets fired from her job, then misses a train home and lives a life full of romantic and philosophical trauma. She also stars as her alternative self, the woman who makes the train, spinning her life in an entirely different direction. Helen's husband has been cheating on her, but the two alternate realities figure it out at different times. The movie cuts back and forth between the two worlds in a way that never gets confusing (one of the Helens has a bandage at the beginning, then, of course, the other one gets a new hairstyle). The movie kicks into romantic overdrive with the introduction of James (John Hannah), a broguish oarsman who is the cutest l'il Brit since Hugh Grant got caught in Los Angeles. The bizarre love triangle (actually, it's a tetrahedron if you figure in the acid-tongued Jeanne Tripplehorn, the adulteress paramour of Helen's husband) plays out in both realities to a fever pitch. You never really know what's going to happen with either Helen, which is the movie's greatest achievement; it's hard to keep 'em guessing if you have two protagonists, let alone one.
The best things about the movie are the smallest; the way Howitt infuses songs into the trauma ring true with anybody who's been dumped or received some sort of social shock. The way the insignificant song on the radio that happens to be playing at the exact time you feel such a grandiose emotion, etched forever in your brain, bleeds all over "Sliding Doors." Plus, in true Hitchcockian fashion, it isn't the train that makes Helen's worlds divert—it's a young child with a Barbie doll. In one reality, she steps in Helen's way on the way to the train; in the other, her father pulls her away just in time. Minutiae like that make the high concepts fun.
The ending for something like this is problematic; there is a tragedy near the film's conclusion that definitely puts the "ach" in "deus ex machina." There were probably fifty better ways to end it, but by then it doesn't matter—we all subscribe to Peter Howitt's emotional world by then, and Paltrow proves herself a fitting Helen for every reality.
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