Film: Also Showing

An Ideal Husband Oliver Parker (PG) n Return to Paradise Joseph Ruben (15) n Prometheus Tony Harrison (15) n Actresses Ventura Pons (12)
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The Independent Culture
OSCAR WILDE'S Lord Goring strolls through the high society of 1890s London with an air of impeccable ennui and the finest buttonhole in town, mocking the stuffiness of his world, and his own place within it. He does nothing - brilliantly. It's understandable, then, that director Oliver Parker should make Lord Goring the centre of his film adaptation of An Ideal Husband, and that Rupert Everett should play him.

The film also has topicality on its side, being the story of a promising political career threatened by sleaze. Sir Robert Chiltern (Jeremy Northam) is a rising star in Parliament with a reputation for moral probity, which no one admires more keenly than his beautiful wife Gertrude (Cate Blanchett). Enter rapacious blackmailer Mrs Cheveley (Julianne Moore) with evidence of a financial indiscretion in Chiltern's past. Her proposition is simple: either he supports a fraudulent canal project in the House or else she will expose his guilty past. In desperation Chiltern turns to the one man who can outwit this ruthless schemer: Lord Goring.

All this should be as comfortable as a favourite armchair, yet I found myself fidgeting throughout. Given that an adapter has Wilde's own lines to work from, it would seem almost impossible to make An Ideal Husband dull - yet Oliver Parker has somehow contrived to. While the play has to be edited for screen purposes, I was amazed and then irritated by how much Parker had changed, or merely ignored. The showdown between Lord Goring and Mrs Cheveley, for example, which should be all rapier thrusts and parries, is slowed into a weedy romantic duet. What's more, the crucial plot device - a diamond bracelet which allows Goring to checkmate his opponent - has been dropped altogether so that Mrs Cheveley, a study in conniving malice, can be softened into a playful adventuress.

The Wildean spark is also painfully absent in most of the performances. Everett passes muster, even if he doesn't catch the insouciance of "the idlest man in London" - not quite trivial enough, as Goring himself might put it. Julianne Moore does little more than flash her teeth, while Minnie Driver gives an absurdly anachronistic performance as Goring's love match. She could learn from the composure of Cate Blanchett, who makes something unexpectedly interesting of her ballbreaker-in-crinoline role.

Fin-de-siecle London has been lovingly recreated, naturally, and the torrid crimsons and card-room greens of the decor look fantastic. But when the furniture looks livelier than the acting, you know a production is in trouble.

Joseph Ruben has never recaptured the shocking vitality of his 1987 chiller The Stepfather, but he handles the ethical drama of Return to Paradise with journeyman competence. Two years after a trio of American college boys partied through a dope'n'sex holiday in Malaysia, two of them - Sheriff (Vince Vaughn) and Tony (David Conrad) - are sought out in New York by elfin attorney Beth (Anne Heche). She has news for them: their gently idealistic friend Lewis (Joaquin Phoenix) was arrested after their departure for sole possession of the drug stash all three of them shared. Having languished in prison ever since, he's sentenced to be hanged at the end of the week unless his two friends return to Penang and share out the six years' imprisonment. In a word, oo-er.

The film skilfully involves us in this bowel-loosening dilemma. How noble would you be if saving a friend's life entailed three years in a brutal foreign nick? Just think of the food, the cold, the squalor - and that's before you even start considering all those missed episodes of Frasier. Vaughn and Heche argue it out for over an hour, perhaps a bit much given that the film already tips us the wink in its title, but you stay with the vacillations of the two pals none the less. I guess the moral of the story is don't get caught with hash in a country like Malaysia, where even the "never inhaled" plea falls on deaf ears.

Tony Harrison's film poem Prometheus is both an earnest elegy to the Yorkshire miners doomed during the Eighties, and a broader reckoning on the state of post-war Europe. It's also, I'm afraid, a purgatorial couple of hours. Based on the Greek myth of the Titan who stole fire from the gods, it features a bizarre central performance by Michael Feast, clad in a tight silvery jumpsuit that's meant to be the costume of Hermes but actually makes him look like one of The Glitter Band. I was on the verge of leaving several times, but something about its total lack of cinematic art kept me pinned to my seat.

Actresses is a pretty leaden inquiry into stage acting. A tyro drama student (Merce Pons) researches the role of Iphigeneia by interviewing three grandes dames of the Catalan theatre who all studied under the late, great Empar Rebira. Along the way we get interminable passages of reminiscence and speculation about the glorious gift of the stage - ironically, the one thing that the film never actually provides is drama. I don't know if the Catalans have a word for luvvie, but they sure as hell have the breed.


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