CINEMA / A miracle on 34th Street? Bah, humbug

THE PROBLEMS with Les Mayfield's Miracle on 34th Street (U) begin with Richard Attenborough's beard. A trim white floss that covers the jowls like shaving foam, it is by normal standards a very respectable growth. But these are not normal standards. They have been set by Edmund Gwenn, who played the Attenborough role of Kris Kringle, the bonhomous old cove who may or may not have been Santa Claus, in the original 1947 Miracle. Gwenn's beard embodied the Christmas spirit, a great snowy bush sticking jauntily out in front of him like an outstretched hand of welcome. It was so luxuriant that the nine-year-old Natalie Wood, in one of the most adorable child performances in movie history, gave it a tug, as if doubtful that such generosity could be real.

That is the theme of Miracle on 34th Street (whichever version): it asks whether the warm spirit of Christmas is credible in the cold, materialistic modern world. Kris Kringle is a cheery resident of an old people's home, who is corralled into playing Santa in a big New York toy-store when an actor is fired for drinking on the job. Kris belongs to the Method school of Santas. After doling out presents, he spends his spare time feeding reindeer in the zoo. He actually thinks he is Santa. His most difficult task is to convince the woman who hired him (Elizabeth Perkins), a disappointed divorcee who has banished sentiment from her life, and her down-in-the-mouth daughter (Mara Wilson). And soon he has to persuade a court he is not mad too.

He has a dedicated lawyer in Dylan McDermott, the young man who is wooing Perkins. But he cannot win over the audience. Like Attenborough's beard, the new film lacks the buoyancy of its model. Like so many remakes, it is caught between craven homage and uneasy reinvention. And for a celebration of the Christmas spirit, it is oddly gloomy. To emphasise the pain that has shaken her faith, Perkins plays the shop manager as a Manhattan Niobe. And in a misguided attempt at modernisation, we are given a lot more detail about her messy marriage than in the original. There Maureen O'Hara was hard but also sparkling - like a diamond. Likewise, in the new version, the clouds never lift from Mara Wilson's little face. Natalie Wood made you laugh with joy at every line; with Wilson you want to weep.

Elsewhere the new film needlessly complicates what was once both simple and subtle. John (Home Alone) Hughes has turned George Seaton's classic screenplay into a conspiracy thriller - it's the store's enemies who question Kris's sanity. This tips the scales of justice towards Kris from the start, whereas the original film was a sincere debate between rationalism and fantasy - which ended up taking the side of faith in goodness, while acknowledging that it meant rejecting reason. The new version unwisely omits the scene where Kris attacks a Freudian analyst - in which the whole theme was cleverly couched.

Hughes rarely works outside Chicago, and so this New York tale is shot in Chicago, with only the occasional cutaway to the Manhattan skyline. A good deal thinner than the 1947 film, it is also 15 minutes longer (which is symptomatic of modern film-making), and so slow-moving that you suspect that the editor was on Valium. Steven Spielberg is said to have urged Attenborough to take on the role of Kris Kringle in order to introduce a new generation of children to the classic. But they would be advised to ignore this travesty, gleaming and in colour though it may be, and stick instead to the whiskery original.

Camp, smart and funny, To Die For (15) is a gay version of Ghost. At its best, this British movie puts the gaiety back into gayness, after Hollywood's evasion and portentousness, and seeks to understand the tragedy of Aids rather than wring its hands over it. Thomas Arklie and Ian Williams play Simon and Mark, lovers living together in a fairly ``open'' relationship. Mark has Aids, and the early part of the film shrewdly examines the pair's different reactions to the disease. Simon stresses the positive: only by believing he can conquer it, will Mark stay healthy. But Mark knows he must accept death, if it is to have meaning for him. The end comes suddenly and matter-of-factly, but not, it turns out, finally.

Mark returns as a ghost, jealously obstructing Simon's new relationships, rescuing him from queer-bashers, and provoking some amusing dialogue (``What's the age of consent in paradise these days?''). Mark's return cues a bout of self-examination by Simon, which may not be a bad thing for him, but mushes up the film with maudlin conversations between him and his mother. There is also a cathartic finale, with descending angel (Wim Wenders meets Monty Python), which is meant to induce tears - but not of laughter. More intentionally humorous is Tony Slattery, as the boyfriend of the woman in the flat above, a councillor trapped in jargon, writing to express himself.

Trial by Jury (15) disintegrates after a promising opening. Joanne Whalley-Kilmer plays a jury member who is menaced by the Mafia. Almost everyone in the film, including William Hurt and Armand Assante, is out to get her, in every sense. The mystery is that the script should give them so little motivation.

Cronos (18) is for those who enjoy watching flesh being torn apart. An old junk-shop owner stumbles on an antique device, shaped like a gold Faberge egg, which turns out to have clockwork talons that pierce the skin, infusing the body with rejuvenating blood. The film traces his masochistic relationship with this Sadean object, in loving, ravishing detail. The film magazine Empire describes Cronos as ``nothing short of a near-masterpiece'' (nothing like going nearly the whole hog), but I found its elegance as excruciating as those precious pincers.

Cinema details and Quentin Curtis's Five Best films, see Review, page 90.

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