Film: Also Showing

Besieged Bernardo Bertolucci (pg) n Message in a Bottle Luis Mandoki (12) The Brylcreem Boys Terence Ryan (12) n Side Streets Tony Gerber (15) Misadventures of Margaret Brian Skeet (15) n Out of the Present Andrei Ujica (U)
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The Independent Culture
HAVING BESTRIDDEN a variety of genres since the mid-Sixties - political epic (1900, The Last Emperor), romantic tragedy (Last Tango in Paris), period adaptation (The Sheltering Sky) - Bernardo Bertolucci has of late retreated from the larger canvas to an intimate, more personal style of film-making. Besieged is a curious, elliptical sort of movie, a chamber piece played out within the walls of an austerely beautiful Roman town house. Based on a story by James Lasdun, it charts the increasingly complex relationship between Shandurai, an African medical student (Thandie Newton) and Kinsky (David Thewlis), the British piano teacher she keeps house for.

Resistant both to his little gifts and his soulful glances, Shandurai is taken aback when Kinsky declares his love and vows to do "anything" for her. Her response ought to be a passion-killer, but the besotted pianist takes her at her word and starts a one-man campaign to secure the release of her husband from a military prison in Africa. In the meantime he distractedly tickles the ivories and she gets on with the vacuuming, while high emotion quivers in the air.

Bertolucci shuttles between muted tonalities and crashing chords of Sturm und Drang, which may have worked on the page but lend a choppy, uneven feel to the film. It isn't helped by the casting, either. Thewlis is too sardonic a presence to carry off such noble self-sacrifice, while Newton is still adrift in the narrow range of yowling and gawping she plied in Beloved. Yet there's something about the finely tuned atmosphere of suppressed longing that keeps us diverted, if not actually enthralled, and the ending is a miniature of ambiguous delicacy. Bertolucci hasn't done great work for some years, but there are moments of inspiration here to suggest that his decline isn't irreversible.

Luis Mandoki's romantic weepie Message in a Bottle would be nothing but a feather-bed to wallow on were it not for the saving grace of Robin Wright Penn. As a Chicago journalist left lonesome by her recent divorce, she finds a bottle washed up, containing a letter in which a man makes an ardent apology to his wife for not being a better husband. Bewitched by the lyrical, heartfelt prose, she tracks down its author to a fishing village on the Carolina coast. He turns out to be a reticent, Hemingwayesque widower who builds boats and cooks steaks. He's Kevin Costner, in fact. The rest you can guess.

Afloat on Gabriel Yared's soupy score, the film splashes out on postcard shots of schooners and cosy campfires as Costner begins to thaw and - sigh - learns to love again. Through the stultifying haze of fantasy-mongering you may discern some good things: Paul Newman is rock-solid as Costner's gruff old dad. But it's always going to be a struggle with Costner's dead weight at the centre. For an actor badly in need of a hit, he doesn't show much urgency. He doesn't show much of anything, in truth, aside from the vacant handsomeness of a model in a nautical-wear catalogue.

The Brylcreem Boys is a PoW movie of such monumental ineptitude it could well become a trash classic. The time is 1941, the place the Republic of Ireland, the problem an internment camp which, in accordance with Dublin's neutrality, holds both Allied and German prisoners. The focus is a deadly rivalry between a Canadian pilot (Bill Campbell) and the German who shot him down (Angus McFadyen), though concentration soon falters in the face of the writer-director Terence Ryan's risibly awful dialogue and racial stereotyping on a par with 'Allo 'Allo. Apparently the film has been on the shelf since 1996 - to judge from the cackles of outraged mirth at the press screening it would have done well to stay there.

A tale of five city boroughs, Side Streets pieces together a mosaic of vignettes over a sweaty 24 hours in New York City. The writer-director Tony Gerber dips into the melting-pot and ladles up a mixture of anxiety and aspiration. The film catches the multifariousness of the urban immigrant experience without ever wiring into its complexity or its energy; the tone is essentially benign, which is perhaps why it will also be easy to forget.

In spite of a strong ensemble cast there's little to recommend The Misadventures of Margaret, a skittish romantic farce that depends heavily on the flaky charm of a young American writer (Parker Posey) who's reached a mid-life crisis 10 years too early. "Save some insanity for menopause," says her exasperated husband (Jeremy Northam), for whom you may feel some sympathy. Brian Skeet's film is eager to please, but can't quite translate its Anglo-American kookiness into comedy. Those in search of something very different should try Out of the Present, which chronicles 10 months in the life of two Russian cosmonauts on the space station Mir. Forget Kevin Costner and his boat-building - this is what isolation really looks like.


All films on release from Friday