FILM / Crash, bang, codswallop: Fearless (15); Tom and Viv (15); Widow's Peak (PG); Striking Distance (18); White Angel (18); Stalingrad (15); That Night (12)

ONLY PETER Weir would find spiritual uplift in a plane crash. The finale to Weir's Fearless (15), in which a DC-10 plunges to earth, can be seen as the climax of a career whose occultism, in films like The Last Wave and Picnic at Hanging Rock, has often seemed a flaky manifesto against the material world. In the passengers' moments of mortal horror, Weir becomes enraptured, drowning the crash's cacophonous impact in religiose music (Gorecki, Symphony No 3), and turning the devastation into a serenely enchanting light show. We see the aeroplane split its seams, but in images of soft, deliquescent beauty rather than shuddering agony.

Weir is not the only man in a state of grace. His hero, Max Klein (Jeff Bridges), an inveterate nervous-flyer on his way from San Francisco to Houston, accepts his mortality as the plane starts to plummet, and the feeling of outfacing his fear puts him on a spiritual high. With preternatural calmness he comforts other passengers, helping a terrified young boy, and rescuing a baby from the wreckage. Survivors recall him as an ecstatic saviour figure ('Follow the light,' they remember him saying). But when he comes to earth he won't relinquish his ecstasy. Feeling he has 'lived through death' and conquered fear, he walks the ledges of tall buildings to prove to himself his invulnerability, and becomes an uncompromising and unworldly truth-teller.

There should be something scary, as well as admirable, about such a figure: a smack of self-righteousness as well as self-discovery. Jeff Bridges, with characteristic laid-back brilliance, conveys this. In the opening scene, while he plays the Good Samaritan among the carnage and debris (the actual crash is shown in a series of flashbacks), a half-smirk plays on his lips. When a psychologist (John Turturro) asks if he's suffered any traumatic reaction, he acts out a contemptuous repertoire of tics for him. He also shows that not the least of the risks this daredevil runs is that of becoming a veteran bore.

But Peter Weir doesn't see it this way. He makes it Max's film: we see much of it through his eyes or his dreams. When he hires a car after leaving the crash, the key in the ignition is shown in close-up, as if even the smallest details of the world had gained a new clarity. Though Rafael Yglesias adapted the screenplay from his own novel, the book's toughness and irony have been lost. In the novel, Max celebrated his spiritual liberation by seducing an old college friend, musing all the time on how fat she'd grown. The college friend remains, but the seduction has gone - and with it Max's blithe brutishness. Likewise the role of Max's wife (Isabella Rossellini), who bears the brunt of his eerie placidity, is underplayed.

What balance there is to Max's airy optimism is provided by Rosie Perez's Carla, a survivor overladen with grief at losing her two-year-old baby in the crash, who seldom moves from her shrine-like room, where her face is never more than half-lit. Perez is superb - fragile and afraid, but with a fury that blasts a hole through Turturro's therapy group when she meets the stewardess who told her on the plane that everything would be fine. But when Max forms a bond with Carla, it seems we're supposed to see them as made exceptional by their experience. Weir sees a rightness in their romance, whereas we see them as tiresome shirkers from the real world.

At this point there's a glimmer of a metaphysical argument: Max has lost his faith, but Carla, a Catholic, argues that a world without a guiding order makes living - and loving - futile. Weir, who's stronger on mood than drama, dresses up such platitudes as profundity. His other big theme is an onslaught on materialism, and, as usual, he loads the dice: all the film's lawyers are venal (especially a sinister Tom Hulce), rubbing their hands as they cheat their way to high settlements for survivors, just as all the boys' parents in Dead Poets Society were unsympathetic. The movie has an art film's subject, but the mind of a blockbuster, which may explain why it failed to find an audience in America. It's inventive, and sometimes beautiful, but not so much fearless as reckless.

With Tom and Viv (15), a dramatisation of T S Eliot's first marriage, following Shadowlands, the cinema is adding new meaning to the idea of writers suffering for their art. After canonisation, cannibalisation - 'to be eaten, to be divided, to be drunk among whispers' in the stalls with the Kia-Ora. I've now followed Tom and Viv through stage, radio and screen incarnations, and each time it seems slicker, wittier and slighter. The ingredients are similar to Shadowlands': a doomed transatlantic literary marriage, cross-cultural social comedy, and lashings of English countryside and period detail. But Tom and Viv, with its sharper script and smarter direction, is almost a classic of middle-brow film-making.

Miranda Richardson, as Vivienne Haigh-Wood, the woman Eliot married and later consigned to a mental hospital, is a touch too theatrical. Her jerking head, darting eyes and nervous hand gestures almost make her certifiable from the start. But she does some wrenching close-up work, letting the terror and jealousy creep over her face, as she sees Eliot lured away from her by the literati. As Eliot, Willem Dafoe is unlikely casting. With his simian sensuality, it's hard to believe in him as a virgin; or, with his languour, as a man who wore a truss because of a congenital double hernia. He seems magnificently self-assured, with none of that Possum-ish timidity, the painful shyness we see in photographs of Eliot.

The outstanding performance comes from Rosemary Harris, as Vivienne's mother, who manages to make her primness a kind of humanity rather than a caricature. The social comedy, when Eliot's erudition rubs against the benevolent philistinism of his in-laws, is delicately handled and wonderfully funny. He tells them he's writing a thesis on F H Bradley's philosophy, and Mrs Haigh-Wood replies: 'The last thing my husband wants to hear about is someone else's philosophy.'

The trouble is that this is the heart of the film. It's as if the last thing it wants to hear about is someone else's philosophy. There's hardly an idea aired in the whole two hours. Bertrand Russell appears, but if you knew no better, you might think he was a fabulous dancer and a bit of an air-head. Viv and Tom don't have a single serious conversation. The play's author, Michael Hastings, makes much of having rescued Vivienne from biographical neglect, but though we're told how clever she is, she isn't allowed a meeting of minds with Eliot. The problem with the play is not one of historicity - so far as can be made out from the two major Eliot biographies, it's reasonably accurate - but of tone and form. There's something grotesque in seeing the life of one of the most formally innovative poets of the century presented in the most rigidly conventional manner, reduced to cheap, if effective, melodrama.

Widow's Peak (PG), like Tom and Viv, touts transatlantic heritage to the Americans. It even starts with the same scene: a vintage motor car scattering locals in a country lane. This time the occupant is Joan Plowright, in Ireland not Oxfordshire. This is one of those films where everyone puts on an accent: Plowright and Mia Farrow play local widows, and Natasha Richardson is an American heiress whose arrival sends Farrow into convulsions of (maybe) murderous jealousy. It's a comedy-thriller, though director John Irvin seems happier with the mystery, labouring gags that ought to be snappy, and rushing ones that need time. The pay-off can be predicted, but Richardson and Farrow are always watchable, going at each other tooth and nail, blowzy amour propre up against spooky disdain.

The other releases deserve short shrift. Bruce Willis plays Thomas Hardy in Striking Distance (18). Relax, that's Detective Thomas Hardy of Pittsburgh's river police, hunting a murderer who dumps Tom's ex-girlfriends in the river. They should send a search party for the missing plot - though a lot of execrable acting survives. In White Angel (18), an enterprisingly funded British film, Peter Firth doesn't know if he's coming or going insane as a killer with a penchant for blondes. It's ludicrous but likeable. More than can be said for Stalingrad (15), a German slog through the eponymous battle, well shot but stultifying. Worst of the lot, That Night (12), a flimsy tale of a Catholic girl's coming of age, in which Juliette Lewis gives her first disappointing performance.

Cinema details: Review, page 74.

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