Sliding Doors, 1998.
Directed by Peter Howitt
Starring Gwyneth Paltrow, John Hannah, John Lynch, Jeanne Tripplehorn, and Zara Turner.
A London woman’s love life and career both hinge, unknown to her, on whether or not she catches a train. We see it both ways, in parallel.
“What if?” That’s the central question of pretty much any time travel movie. (Back to the Future: What if you could meet your parents when they were in high school?) In the case of Sliding Doors, the time travel is set up in the sense of parallel storylines that stem from the question: What if Helen Quilley (Gwyneth Paltrow) misses her train or just manages to slip through its sliding doors?
The film sets up that premise and then follows the two alternate storylines, cutting back and forth between them while occasionally allowing them to intersect. While that sounds like it could be confusing, writer/director Peter Howitt employs several visual cues to help you keep track of which timeline you’re watching: Helen’s haircut changes in one of them, for example, and there are some clearly delineated personality changes that help as well.
The plot is a typical rom-com, something that certainly had its heyday during the 1990s. In one storyline, Helen catches her boyfriend in bed with another woman. In the other storyline, she doesn’t, but we know he’s cheating on her. What happens in each version of the tale leads from that binary decision point, with the climax serving up a bit of melodrama that was quite at home in the late 90s but could be a bit eye-rolling to younger viewers today. (Hey, us Gen Xers were searching for some kind of meaning of life back then, before social media, smartphones, and insane threats to democracy.)
Sliding Doors’ theme, of course, is how the simplest occurrences can introduce major changes in our lives, but also how it’s up to us to make changes happen. Before the catches/misses the train moment, Helen has been laid off from her job, so she spends the rest of the movie not only dealing with her ne’er-do-well boyfriend but also trying to cope with that event. Sure, you can argue that its clever hook might have been better used on a weightier story, but there’s nothing stopping anyone from using it themselves. It’s not like you can claim the rights to a story hook.
I find Sliding Doors a fun film to revisit, so I can remember an era when life just seemed simpler. I’m not the biggest Gwyneth Paltrow fan, but she does a fine job in this film, which helped push her burgeoning career forward. And as someone who has reached the mid-century mark of my life, I admit I’ve had my share of “What if this had happened instead of that?” moments in recent years.
This new Collector’s Edition from Shout! Factory features a new 2K transfer along with a nice batch of bonus features.
- Audio commentary: This is a new track with Howitt, who looks back on writing and directing his first feature film, which, surprisingly, had some difficulties being made before Intermedia Films in London and Sydney Pollack’s Mirage Enterprises stepped in to tag-team on its production. Howitt seems pretty thrilled to look back the experience and covers a wide range of subjects, including the writing process, giving Paltrow a British accent, and stories from the set. Unfortunately, he sometimes falls into the trap of just reciting what we’re seeing onscreen, but it’s easy to give him a pass because he seems so jazzed to be talking about the movie again.
- The Sliding Doors Moments (74 minutes): A wide-ranging look back on the making of the movie, this documentary features behind-the-scenes footage shot by Howitt over 20 years ago and interviews with him, Paltrow, fellow cast member John Hannah, Pollack, producer Philippa Braithwaite, and others. While Sliding Doors isn’t looked back on as a major classic, it was one of those rare Hollywood opportunities where the stars aligned and many talented people came together to make a movie that’s still fondly remembered by many. It takes an incredible amount of work and sheer dumb luck to get pretty much any movie made, let alone one that makes even a little dent on the zeitgeist of its era, and this documentary is a testament to that.
- A Stroll Through Sliding Doors London (12.5 minutes): Howitt walks us through a tour of many of the movie’s shooting locations, including a recollection of the real-life moment that he experienced and which inspired the movie.
Some trailers and TV spots round out the platter.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★★★ / Movie: ★★★