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Film-maker Hossein Amini confesses this, his directorial debut, is a labour of love, a project he has nurtured for years ever since he first read Patricia Highsmith’s difficult novel of guilt, secrets and self-destruction.

He said: “It was the only book I’ve ever adapted that I felt compelled to direct, mostly because I recognised so many of the characters’ emotional contradictions and shortcomings in myself.”

The successful realisation of Highsmith’s The Talented Mr Ripley made the movie possible but not necessarily easy.

The three-strong cast – our sole companions for the journey around Greece, Crete and Istanbul in 1962 – are wonderfully vivid, especially set in the brilliant Mediterranean light but the compulsion that keep them bound to each other in a climate of fear and suspicion is more indistinct.

Viggo Mortensen plays Chester MacFarland a high-class, dapper conman, lying low after selling shares in an oilfield that doesn’t exist. On his arm is the much younger Colette (Kirsten Dunst) who enchants chancer Rydal (Oscar Isaac), a tour guide, who becomes embroiled in their escape plan when they are rumbled.

Rydal eyes easy money and, perhaps, a flirtation with the blonde who sees her life crumble as her husband descends towards Machiavellian and boorish madness.

On the run, dashing from picturesque fishing village to sun-scarred hill top, the allegiances within the triumvirate shift and churn.

The exotic ruins are necessary to keep the eye occupied in a slight tale that does not entirely convince.

Chester becomes jealous of youthful Oscar. Colette becomes disillusioned with her flawed sugar daddy. Rydal sees in Chester a father figure and cannot walk away.

The film draws on the influences of the period. Not only from the lavish European heritage of pencil-skirted heroines and linen-suited men but, inevitably, from Alfred Hitchcock, the master of suspense.

Strangers On The Train (Hitchcock and Highsmith) is a clear reference. A simple strategy with likely success is undone by the slow accumulation of guilt and mistrust left to brew in freighted silences.

Dunst is wasted and becomes merely a prop. Efforts to give her character texture are futile.

Meanwhile the central relationship between of hard-edged Mortensen and soft-eyed Oscar is the driver of the piece.

The affectionate but deadly power struggle in the father-son dynamic, born in Greek myth, is mishandled at times but comes together for a satisfying pay-off.

The Two Faces Of January
(12A) 96mins