A Zed & Two Noughts first published by Movie Gazette, 2 December 2004
One evening, a low-flying swan collides with a car driving along Swan(n)’s Way, killing two female passengers instantly. Their husbands, Oliver and Oswald Deuce (Brian and Eric Deacon), biologists working for the same zoo who also happen to be brothers and, as it turns out, conjoined twins separated since childhood, are left to pick up the shattered glass, feathers and egg which is now their lives. Unhinged by grief, they attempt to understand so unlikely an event by studying the Darwinian origins of life and its eschatology through David Attenborough documentaries and experiments involving biological decomposition. At the same time they strike up a bizarre relationship with Alba Bewick (Andrea Ferréol), the sole survivor of the accident, who has one of her legs amputated after the other by her Vermeer-obsessed doctor Van Meegeren (Gerard Thoolen) as he tries to transform her into the subject of one of his favourite paintings. The twins’ strange quest reunites them, even as it brings them to an inevitable conclusion.
There has always been a playful continuity between Peter Greenaway‘s different projects, as though they are all set in the same lunatic universe (or in this case, zoo), and A Zed & Two Noughts is no exception. Its opening accident recalls Greenaway’s 1980 masterpiece The Falls, a three-hour mockumentary which listed 92 casualties of an improbable avian catastrophe (and the manager of the zoo, played by Geoffrey Palmer, shares his name, Fallast, with one of the subjects of The Falls). Also included are Greenaway’s usual obsessions with catalogues, alphabets and landscapes – and the keeper of the owls, Van Hoyten (Joss Ackland), has a name familiar from a number of Greenaway’s earlier films – or as one character in A Zed & Two Noughts puts it, “I’m not sure that Van Hoyten is always the same person”.
Yet despite the impossibility of mistaking A Zed & Two Noughts as anyone else’s work, it is not amongst Greenaway’s best films. Overambitious from the start, this symmetrical tale of twins ends up being too clever by half, throwing more ideas in the air than either the viewer, or indeed the director, can properly juggle. Certainly Greenaway’s idea of experimenting with twenty-six different light sources, in order to approximate the subtle use of light in Vermeer’s paintings, makes the film stunningly beautiful to look at, as does the painterly cinematography realised by Sacha Vierny – and Michael Nyman’s soundtrack is as majestically fey as ever. Yet the characters are too soulless, and the drama too clinical, to inspire the filmgoer to give A Zed & Two Noughts the multiple viewings its complexity demands.
In short, Greenaway’s eccentric exploration of where all life’s absurd varieties must begin and end is, like a road accident, always fascinating, if not exactly pleasurable, to watch.
strap: Peter Greenaway’s painterly human bestiary is a freak accident from which you cannot look away, with an inevitable terminus