FILM / Reviews: History in the making: Adam Mars-Jones on Century, Stephen Poliakoff's study in time and motion, and Another Stakeout, another romp

If all British films are to be costume dramas (a possible fate for the industry) then let them all be as intelligent and imaginative as Stephen Poliakoff's Century (15). The strength of the film lies not just in strong performance or unusual story line (a young doctor comes to London and joins a sort of visionary scientific think tank), but in images that conflict with our idea of what the past looks like.

The film is set between New Year 1900 and New Year 1901, two different definitions of the beginning of a century, a year contested between two epochs and two attitudes. The hero's father, played by Robert Stephens, puts up an electric sign for the first New Year, which looks wildly anachronistic until we see the bulbs - which are well, bulbous, elongated and unreliable. When Paul himself (Clive Owen) leaves home, he travels in the van that has installed a telephone in his father's house - a horse-drawn van used for telephone installation, 19th-century technology containing 20th. At the institute where he works, female lab assistants wear no overalls, visually trapped by the assumptions of 19th- century society, while their work helps to create the future.

Some of the language seems less incontestably in period - references for instance to 'genes', 'heterosexuality', women's 'periods' - but Poliakoff's research may corroborate it. Certainly the milieu of young doctors is a plausible setting for sexual experimentation and a timeless sort of cynicism. The heroine, Clara (Miranda Richardson), is a slightly miraculous figure in her tender knowingness and sexual ease, but Richardson manages to bridge the gaps, noticeably in one sequence where she starts off angry but listens to reason, or rather to passion. She modulates convincingly from strong modern woman back-projected on to the past into wish-fulfilment romantic heroine, submissive in spite of herself.

To go with the two centuries there are two father figures, the biological and the intellectual (the head of the institute, played by Charles Dance). It is a slight flaw of the film that the real father seems transparently genial compared to the adoptive one, so that scenes of Paul getting into embarrassing, and even professionally damaging, situations out of a reluctance to offend his dad ring false. The first of the New Year parties is a disaster because nobody turns up, the second threatens to be no less disastrous because everyone does turn up, and this seems determined not by convincing behaviour from xenophobic neighbours (Paul's family is Romanian), but by a screenwriter's desire to manipulate climaxes.

But Century deserves to be celebrated for its effortless integration of contemporary issues - immigration, genetic engineering in the broadest sense of that phrase - with a convincing historical story. For every scene where the writer-director seems to be tipping his hand, succumbing to hindsight or herding his people in a particular direction for plot purposes, there is another where a character shows an unexpected aspect independent of the demands of the story line. The hero's irrepressible father, preparing for his second party, seems to experience a collapse of energy that looks as if it could move abruptly into suicidal depression. The head of the institute, in many ways a Mephistopheles figure, gives a Christmas lecture in which the charm and flair that the hero has rejected suddenly seem overwhelming all over again.

Another Stakeout (PG) is a worthy sequel to a disposable original, dating from 1987. It's hard to remember now how the director John Badham once seemed - in 1983, the year of War Games and Blue Thunder - to have a real knack for superior popular entertainment, formulaic projects given just a little extra finish. Another Stakeout is a thoroughly laborious romp.

To be exact, it's a poor man's Lethal Weapon, if you can imagine such a thing, stuffed to the gills with synthetic byplay between the leads, Richard Dreyfuss and Emilio Estevez. Dreyfuss has systematically turned himself from an actor with some pretensions to range into a comedy shouter. Starring opposite Bette Midler tends to coarsen actors - they have to turn up the decibels to survive - and perhaps Down and Out in Beverley Hills was a turning point for Dreyfuss. Estevez is a slightly less predictable performer, and has a pleasant running gag here about the moustache he is required to shave off for a particular assignment, and which he much misses.

The half-hearted twist on the Lethal Weapon formula is that it is the older man who is reckless and irresponsible, and in his private life finds it hard to commit, while the younger partner is more sensible and moreover a family man, a husband and father. Another Stakeout is mildly unusual in its genre in that the love interest is relegated to a sub-plot - a question of whether the Dreyfuss character will be able to win back the long-established girlfriend he has alienated with his marriage phobia - while the female lead, played by Rosie O'Donnell, is not a glamour object.

To be precise, she is plump, a fact which is never mentioned but determines the way she is presented on screen. She has no romantic life - she doesn't even need to explain that there is no husband, toy-boy or date - her only significant other being her dog, an over-sized comedy pooch whose antics create any number of would-be hilarious situations. O'Donnell is considerably younger than Dreyfuss, but when the two of them have to pose as a married couple it is understood that it is comic for him to be lumbered with her, not for her to be lumbered with him. Her sins against nubility outweigh his sins against youth.

Estevez must pretend to be Dreyfuss's son, which the script makes out to be a wild unlikelihood, though it seems perfectly plausible from the look of them. In fact the story line requires the film's stars to act out, as if unwillingly, roles that are much more natural than the strenuous buddy-buddy crosstalk we are required to find so winning.

Rosie O'Donnell has been cast as Betty Rubble in the forthcoming film version of The Flintstones. Here's hoping she has the courage (or the intransigent agent) to resist the six-month stretch in a fat farm that is likely to be suggested as necessary preparation for the part. But at least she can say, after Another Stakeout, that she is no newcomer to live-action cartoon.

(Photograph omitted)

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