CINEMA / The Hawk that refused to take off

'SOMEBODY'S husband, somebody's son' was how the police chief hunting the Yorkshire Ripper described his quarry. The phrase - an attempt to put a human face on inhuman acts - was the title of Gordon Burn's account of the Ripper, and now inspires a new British thriller, The Hawk (15).

The film opens with a woman getting out of her broken- down car to phone for help. The next time we see her, she's a body under a police blanket, gouged and mutilated by the Hawk - 'Does what the bird does: plucks out the eyes,' explains a cop. But the film is not about the killer, or his victims (this is the only one we see), but his wife. I Married a Serial Killer could have been the title.

Helen Mirren plays the wife - she's now married to the Prime Suspect. The shadow of Peter Sutcliffe, the real-life Ripper, hangs over her as it does over the whole film. Like Sonia Sutcliffe, Mirren's Annie Marsh seems socially a cut above her working-class husband, Stephen (George Costigan).

Haggard and distracted, she lives in a different world, a stranger to the blokeish humour Stephen shares with his leering brother (Christopher Madin). We see him take her to his sleazy local for the first time, and it's only after she recognises a young prostitute from there, pictured as the Hawk's latest victim, that she suspects. As she leafs through a diary, piecing together Stephen's movements, a sound-montage of news reports, mixed in with his incriminating comments, mimics her mind's scramble to accusation.

Mirren has such a commanding presence that it's hard to believe in her as a victim. Even mussing her hair up into frowsy curls, for a night out, she seems to have an infinite variety; and her metropolitan allure, like her Southern accent, can't help glinting beneath the grime. Director David Hayman does his best by constantly shooting her behind bars - bannister rails or the slats of the kitchen blinds - but you can't see what's keeping her from walking out (or why she ever walked in). Though a flickering sexual attraction is hinted at, the real reason for her inaction is a history of mental illness: an unconvincing cop-out, as she looks more like a psychiatrist than a patient.

The film doesn't delve into Stephen's psychopathology. In the pub, we glimpse the macho aggression of his natural habitat, as he listens to jokes about Pakistanis and vomits over the table. Like Peter Sutcliffe, he may be killing out of sublimated hatred for his wife - his victims, like Annie, are mothers of two. Though the film is Annie's, we could have done with a little more of the sexist culture imprisoning her, the sense of language itself being steeped in misogyny that there was in Blake Morrison's Ballad of the Yorkshire Ripper. But the film tackles its subject intelligently, without the sensationalism of The Silence of the Lambs, or the glib black humour of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. It aims to do more than just entertain. It's not a failure, but it doesn't quite soar.

Alain Resnais' 1961 Last Year in Marienbad (U) is re- released to wish the Everyman Cinema, Hampstead, a happy, if rather recherche 60th birthday. Resnais and his screen- writer, Alain Robbe-Grillet, rejected traditional linear film form, with its weary causality, for something more fluid; the images - taken from memory and imagination as well as reality - flow together like a dream's. A stranger (Giorgio Albertazzi) wanders through the baroque opulence of a huge hotel. From among the guests, all standing like cardboard cut- outs in formal evening attire, he is drawn to a beautiful young woman (Delphine Seyrig). He seeks to rescue her from this time-deserted palace by offering her a past, and a future - by claiming to have had an affair with her last year, now to be resumed. The more the woman is drawn into his reality, the less we're sure that it's fantasy.

This is the plot, but you'd be advised not to follow it: that way, Robbe-Grillet admitted in the text, lies confusion, if not incomprehension. It's more rewarding to treat the film as a poem, drinking in the icily majestic images, and realising that wherever Resnais' endless tracking shots are leading, it's not towards meaning. You may feel, by the end, that this portrait of a present weighed down by the past is perversely uncinematic. Resnais' obsession with memory was most effective in the Auschwitz of Nuit et Bruillard, where it felt natural that life should be halted in history's tracks. Here, deprived even of the human warmth of Hiroshima, Mon Amour, it feels sterile, leaving us as mesmerised by its boredom as its beauty.

Also at the Everyman, before touring the regions, is Tale of the Fox (U), by a neglected master of animation, the Pole Wladyslaw Starewicz (1882- 1965). The film was shot in 1930-31, but was being prepared for 10 years before. Starewicz's puppetry brings to life not only the wily fox but also the whole animal kingdom, from the lion king, in his brocaded tunic, down. The compositions are clean and startling, often verging on chiaroscuro, and no detail is spared: when the fox looks down a well, we get a shot of him from below, silhouetted against the sky - a day's work, perhaps, for a glorious grace note. With its cranky humour and meticulous stop-motion, this film is an ancestor of Tim Burton's The Nightmare before Christmas, just out in America. Though Starewicz cocks a snook at Disney, he is not free of sentimentality. It's chiefly a mechanical triumph.

Which is more than can be said of the grim road movie Bound and Gagged (18), in which a woman kidnapped by her lesbian ex-lover is driven, sometimes stuffed in the boot, by her suicidal ex-husband to a therapist. Half an hour in, I realised it was a comedy; the last hour still didn't raise a laugh.

Cinema details: Review, page 106

(Photograph omitted)

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