Movie richness worth returning to many times.

"Hello, Stranger" is the opening salvo in a modern war of the sexes pitting four adults against each other like romantic assassins. Set in chilly London, "Closer" offers irony with its title but the truth with that first line. Director Mike Nichols shoots his artistic arrows at a bull's eye once again, as he did with the trenchant social satires "Carnal Knowledge," "The Graduate," and "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf."

The title is ironic because the four principals (played by Julia Roberts as Anna, Jude Law as Dan, Clive Owen as Larry, and Natalie Portman as Alice) are variously married to each or lovers but are never "closer" to each other or to us even though their bed partners are right next to them and we but a few feet from the screen. What we do know is that they can be unfaithful with nary a look back, virtually daring themselves to be caught and us to understand why they torture themselves and their "loved" ones.

The first line is literal because the four remain strangers to themselves and us, as moderns tend to be in an increasingly surface, electronic age. The sequence in which Dan instant messages as a woman with the unknowing Larry is a typically figurative comment by this brilliant director about the deception of faceless communication. The performances of the two men in these roles are a tribute to the director's meticulous crafting of character, going from Dustin Hoffman's perfectly paced timing in "The Graduate" to everyone's in "Angels in America" and "Closer." Even Nichols's rain serves the figurative drowning/baptism for Dan as it did for Hoffman's Benjamin, and the magnificent London skyline during a disastrous luncheon serves to contrast, with its phallic tower, the baseness of the adulterers' negotiation. That Anna is a photographer is just another part of the "seeing" love motif. When Anna asks Dan, "Why did you swear love eternal when what you wanted was excitement?" the lie motif reaches its apex. This is movie richness worth returning to many times.

That is to say this director leaves nothing to chance. His frame is filled with metaphoric clues to help us see the unified theme of strangers in a familiar land. Playwright/screenwriter Patrick Marber has created characters much less accessible than Nichols's "Woolf" and "Knowledge" predators, whose souls are bared through shouting and confession, an arguable art in 2004. To feel the cold of London, the warmest city otherwise in the world for me, through Stephen Goldblatt's chillingly penetrating cinematography, is to feel the cold of these adulterers, who ply their love with an efficiency to make any person afraid of what the next amorous stranger will bring.

The bard as always hits the modern application without knowing it. From "King Henry VIII": "I am sorry I must never trust thee more/ But count the world a stranger for thy sake."