Michael Tolkin's The New Age telegraphs enough despair to have optimists opting for suicide. The film peels the paint off the trend's buzzwords to reveal a bankrupt theology. In Tolkin's words, 'it's a story about two people spiritually unprepared for crisis'. The plight of its monied protagonists (Peter Weller and Judy Davis, who has made despair something of a speciality) can be scaled down to fit most professional tax brackets.
Along comes Louis Malle's Chekhov update, Vanya on 42nd Street, to remind us that, for all the talk of post-modern ennui, despair has long been a going concern. Adapted by David Mamet from a literal translation, filmed in the auditorium of a decrepit vaudeville theatre (the stage was too dangerous), its actors dressed in street clothes, it's a quality production that never quite justifies its methodology.
A Man of No Importance stars Albert Finney as a bus conductor in Dublin during the early Sixties. A Wilde aficionado - indeed, a Wilde surrogate - he mounts an amateur production of Salome and so incurs the outrage of his former leading man (Michael Gambon). The teasing out of the conductor's homosexuality plays like a bittersweet Ealing comedy.
Another American distributor's nightmare is Chris Menges's Second Best. It's first-rate and William Hurt is a marvel in it but it's hopelessly low-key. As a middle-aged Welsh postmaster who adopts a troubled 10-year- old, the actor hasn't stretched himself this far since Kiss of the Spider Woman. Before winning two Academy Awards for cinematography for The Killing Fields and The Mission, and a clutch of Cannes prizes for his first film as director, A World Apart, Menges worked with Ken Loach and the influence is apparent. The relationship of man and boy is intense yet subtle, a miraculous contradiction.
Two debuts, Angela Pope's Captives and Frank Darabont's The Shawshank Redemption, provide opposition to all this realism - curious, given that both have prison settings. In Captives, a beautiful young dentist (Julia Ormond) is wooed by one of her convict patients (Tim Roth). They proceed to have unprotected sex in the ladies loo. It's a slick and sexy fairy-tale. Roth cruises through it and gets to put the boot into the bad guys.
Whilst Shawshank is no less fantastical, it has an excuse: it's adapted from a Stephen King novella. Tim Robbins plays the ultimate anal retentive: a banker convicted for the murder of his wife and her lover, he perseveres through 20 years of maximum security. But, despite the preponderance of institutional grey, the characters are black-and-white.
VENICE FESTIVAL RESULTS
The Golden Lion was shared earlier this week by two films: Before the Rain, by Macedonia's Milcho Manchevski, and Vive L'Amour by the Taiwanese director Ts'ai Ming Liang. It was thought that David Lynch, the Jury President, might favour Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers for a Golden Lion, but the film was only awarded the Special Prize of the jury. Italy's Gianni Amelio - known in Britain for Open Doors and The Stolen Children - won the Best Director prize for Lamerica, a film about Albania. The Best Actor was Xia Yu, from China; Best Actress was Maria de Madeiros. Britain's Ken Loach and Al Pacino were both given awards for Lifetime Achievement.