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Feeling down on the farm; COUNTRY LIFE Michael Blakemore (PG) ECLIPSE Jeremy Podeswa (18) RUDY Rudy Anspaugh (PG)
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The Independent Culture
Summer approaches, the birds are in the trees, the Tube trains smell like locker rooms after double PE and, with typically bad timing, there's little to smile about at the movies this week. Suffering somewhat by comparison to Louis Malle's sublime Vanya on 42nd Street, Country Life, which also uses Chekhov's text as a springboard, is a film forceful in commentary and intent - a touch too forceful in fact. And not funny enough by a mile, a fact which hits you whenever a sparkling glint of humour catches your eye, usually when the stiff writer-director Michael Blakemore isn't looking.

The action of Uncle Vanya has been moved to an Australian sheep station immediately after the First World War, where the prissy theatre critic Alexander Voysey has returned after two decades in London. This scenario gives Blakemore, who also puts his pair of cruel eyes to good use playing Alexander, ample opportunity to scrutinise Anglo-Australian relations, and work in some effortlessly topical digs. He savours these opportunities (the script, though often too literal-minded, has dashes of real spice) and is perfectly horrid about critics the way only a director can be. But it's exhaustive, finicky film-making - there's not a breeze that hasn't been trained to waft through at the appropriate moment, and not a breath of oxygen for us or the cast. After a time, you admire the actors simply for keeping their heads above water, even a drained, flat-toned Greta Scacchi, lumbered with a slip of a part as Alexander's unfulfilled wife Deborah.

Soon after their arrival in Australia, Alexander and Deborah are stirring up resentments both deliberate and inadvertent among the family who accommodate them. There is Sally (Kerry Fox), Alexander's daughter, a sensible, slightly frumpy lass whose blossoming love for the local doctor Max Askey (Sam Neill) is thwarted by Max's own feelings for Deborah. Then there's Jack (John Hargreaves), Alexander's buffoonish brother-in-law, who has been sending him money to keep him thriving in London. Jack entertains his own highly implausible fantasies about Deborah, and is about to have the dreams he has been living through Alexander abruptly shattered ("All the beautiful girls you must have known," he sighs wistfully. "And George Bernard Shaw").

It doesn't take long for Alexander to reveal his true ugly self. There are the symbolic attempts to drag the household a few inches nearer Europe - muscling French wine into the cellars, or suggesting, in his lightly bullying tone, that dinner be moved to an hour more convenient for him. And the physical ones, which cause hairline fractures - treating Sally, who worships him, like a servant girl, and the servant girl like a plaything, all the while too bone-idle and self-absorbed to notice how close Deborah and Max are becoming with each other.

Blakemore credits his film as having been "suggested by" Uncle Vanya, presumably to allow himself more freedom than a straightforward adaptation, though he brings with him an entirely separate set of restrictions which spring mostly from an abundance of satirical ideas and an inability to integrate them into the rich human fabric of the story.

He is actually an accomplished theatre director but here, as on his one previous feature Privates on Parade, his starched direction feels at odds with his cast. When you've got an actress as expressive as Kerry Fox, you don't do this to her - you let her spread like ink on tissue the way Jane Campion did in An Angel At My Table (and Danny Boyle didn't in Shallow Grave).

Blakemore's formality clicks only in the sparky dinner-table scenes, where these mismatched characters clash to the sound of cutlery scraping across the faces of plates. Those scenes demand awkwardness and a sense of barely-disguised rage, and they get it. It's the only time you feel that everything's working in tandem.

Only the film doesn't follow through on this promise. Blakemore has plenty of time for figures lit in doorways, or blazing sunsets tearing a sky in two. He also shoots a moving incidental scene where Violet (Robyn Cruze), the servant subjected to Alexander's overtures, flees the old lech's burning orange quarters for the icy blue stairway, the real world. But nothing could convince you that he gives two hoots for his characters. He delights in what they symbolise - Max, for instance, is something like the new Australia of aspirations and passions unequalled by any of the parched ideas which Alexander, of the old school, lugs around like baggage. But though there are pertinent points made about the absurdity of imitating alien cultures, it's more of a thesis-with-pictures than a work of fully realised ideas. The pleasures are in the acting alone, particularly Fox, beautifully moving in her scenes with Neill. "What if I knew a girl who was in love with you?" she ventures. "What advice would you give?" "I would tell her she could do a good deal better," Neill purrs, accidentally summing up the film he's in.

There's no joy to be found in the plodding Eclipse, which is really just a Confessions film dolled up for the art-house circuit. The plots of those movies always went something like "my boyfriend's away, do you fancy a quickie?" whereas this goes to the trouble of setting up a total eclipse in Toronto which sends 10 disparate characters sex-crazy. Everybody here spouts philosophy in the sack, which is about as hard to take as the doomy Eastern wailing that starts up whenever someone shows a bit of flesh (wouldn't the 'phone or doorbell ringing have been more realistic?). It's only worth seeing for the young actor Matthew Ferguson, who played a similar pretty- boy narcissist in Love and Human Remains, and has enough swagger and soreness to suggest that he deserves far better than this.

Drab and drabber: Rudy is a second-rate Dead Poets Society with Sean Astin the poor man's Chris O'Donnell - tough cheese considering that O'Donnell is the poor man's Michael J Fox. It's a syrupy true story with steel mills, farewells at Greyhound stations and a young boy pursuing dreams on the football field. It's a bit like a two-hour Bruce Springsteen song, only you can't play air-guitar to it. No jokes either.