FILM / Colder comforts: Sheila Johnston finds warmth in the outer reaches

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The Northerners (15) - Director: Alex van Warmerdam (Neths)

Friends (15) - Director: Elaine Proctor (GB/Fr)

Undercover Blues (12) - Director: Herbert Ross (US)

Hear No Evil (15) - Director: Robert Greenwald (US)

In the doldrums of early January, when Hollywood is quietly offloading the old season's dross, you would be well advised to go nosing around the outer reaches of the arthouses in the faint hope of finding something of merit. There, the best contender by a long measure is The Northerners, a second movie by the Dutch director Alex van Warmerdam, and one which earned him a Felix for the Best Young European Film of the Year.

The title primes you for a chilly, angst-ridden affair, but this is not at all what Warmerdam delivers. To be sure, his characters nurse their twisted psyches: a priapic butcher with a frigid wife; an impotent hunter whose mate longs for a child; a nosey-parker postman (played by the director) who zips off into the woods to read his mail before delivery; a small boy who vents his frustrations by running round in blackface as the Congolese leader Patrice Lumumba. But The Northerners is in the end a genial affair, with nothing of the morbid, Arctic- Circle kamikaze of Aki Kaurismaki's films, or Bergman's blasted, deep-frozen psyches.

The setting, a bright and shiny late-Fifties housing estate in the middle of nowhere, consists of a windswept building site and a single street of cloned houses. Through these huge picture windows each beehived, head-scarfed neighbour spends her days snooping on the next. It's a campy, soap- operatic premise that becomes something rather different, thanks to Warmerdam's flair for deadpan slapstick, his eye for an artful image (the film is strikingly framed and lit), and surreal flashes like the stern missionary monks whose roadshow comes complete with captive African infidel cowering in a cage, or the statuette of St Francis who occasionally scrambles down from his shelf for a quick chat.

There is, finally, less to The Northerners than meets the eye: Warmerdam's would-be symbolic bits - the escape of the African, the fall of the Congolese leader, the dark doings in the woods which abuts on the township - don't quite cohere into what one might call a vision; his closing moments stumble into anticlimax. But, for the rest, this is a droll, enjoyable and more than promising Young Movie.

Elaine Proctor's ambitious South African drama Friends suffers from a similar problem: her attempt to draw the stories of three women from different backgrounds into a big fresco of that troubled country in the late Eighties is sharp on individual scenes, woolly in its broader perspective. Sophie (Kerry Fox, the powerful star of Jane Campion's An Angel at My Table) is a poor little rich white girl hoping to exorcise her guilt through terrorist activity; Thoko (Dambisa Kente), a liberal teacher from a Zulu township, tries, vainly, to steer her students away from revolution and towards education; Aninka, a working-class Afrikaaner from the racist hinterlands, is an archaeologist scrabbling in the dust for her nation's history.

These are all potentially fascinating characters who never come into focus: Proctor is good on the small, vivid detail of the women's lives together - their casual cruelty, the sudden warmth - weak on the foundations of their friendship, already in crisis when the film begins. What provoked this defiant rainbow alliance, one wonders, against all the odds? The story drives them down separate paths, providing few answers, towards a chain of big confrontations and reconciliations, lacking the emotional groundwork that would give them impact and meaning.

Hungry film-goers are also referred to tonight's one-off performance of Frank Borzage's Seventh Heaven (see Best of the Reps), an evening of high romantic agony and ecstasy. But the two new American offerings are sickly creatures. Undercover Blues, once known, slightly more wittily, as Cloak and Diaper, is unlikely to pep up the ailing careers of its stars, Kathleen Turner and Dennis Quaid.

It's a dog-earred cross between the caper movies of the Sixties (the couple are spies for the FBI), the yuppie-parenthood movies of the late Eighties (they are on long, luxurious maternity leave in New Orleans with an insufferably winsome eight-month-old baby in tow), and the caring, New Age movies of the Nineties (where once the secret agent was a debonair, hedonistic, sexist fellow, these two are enlightened parents trashing the baddies to secure their child a better world).

Turner and Quaid snog a lot, kick their legs and lob the sprog around - the baby is the spy's ultimate dream gadget, better than anything Q might have devised. Mostly however, they twinkle merrily at each other and unzip big, cheesy, ear-to-ear grins in an attempt to convince us they are in a sparkling, fun-packed comedy.

Hear No Evil is worse, a dull, borderline incompetent thriller, and a real comedown for Marlee Maitlin. Maitlin won an Academy Award (for Children of a Lesser God) eight years ago and is more than usually vulnerable to the Oscar curse (she is hearing-impaired), but surely Hollywood could find something meatier for her talent. In this variation on Wait until Dark, Maitlin is stalked by baddies in search of a McGuffin in her possession. It's a silly piece, poorly plotted and crafted, and, unlike the earlier film - whose blind heroine gains the advantage over her pursuers by killing the lights in her home - her character makes disability an asset.

(Photograph omitted)