FILM / Deep in the Fen of iniquities

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Waterland (15). . . . . . . .Stephen Gyllenhaal (UK)

Lovers (18). . . . . . . . . . .Vincente Aranda (Sp)

Jersey Girl (15). . . . . .David Burton-Morris (US)

Purists have already expressed their disdain for the Americanisation that has been visited on Graham Swift's Waterland. Swift's guilty, garrulous schoolteacher narrator, Tom Crick (Jeremy Irons), now teaches in Pittsburgh rather than London, and when Crick's mind and lessons start wandering back to the old Fens, his American pupils are literally carried away, so that we see them trundling around the East Anglian past in a vast Edwardian car out of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

A crass mid-Atlantic travesty of a complex and thoroughly English novel, then? On the contrary: there are many ways in which the change of air has been bracing. To set the film's present tense so far away from its past lends the film a cultural distance that makes up for its loss of some temporal perspectives. It's useful, too, that American students tend to be even more hostile to the past than their British peers. Peter Prince's screenplay has a line which catches this point nicely: admitting his redundancy, Crick wryly slips into their youthful idiom: 'I'm history,' he shrugs.

Swift's novel is a knowing foray into the British Gothic tradition, in which all the familar props of incest, suicide, witchcraft, family curses and village idiots have been pressed into the service of a rumination on small and grand narratives. Waterland's director, Stephen Gyllenhaal, is best known for his small- town drama Paris Trout, set in Georgia and strongly flavoured by the American Gothic trappings of madness, rabies, bigotry and murder. Gyllenhaal doesn't quite manage to effect a hybrid of the two strains, but in opting for doom rather than tremulousness, he does give his Fenland a sense of the weird that smacks more of Louisiana than Lincolnshire. Robert Elswitt's cinematography is also suitably drained and bleak - the mudbanks here look like piles of molten lead. True, most of the qualities which made Swift's novel distinctive have been cut (a memorable digression on the life-cycle of the eel, for one) but Price and Gyllenhaal have given this Waterland a much stronger narrative line than most literary films, and made it considerably more engrossing. Decent cast, too.

The most eye-catching advance publicity on Vicente Aranda's Lovers comes from Madonna, who said that she was so inflamed by its erotic thrashings that she had to seek relief from her latest gentleman caller. Amatory passages are indeed the film's strongest suit, though it's basically a tragic love triangle set in the mid-Fifties, in which the gormlessly handsome Paco (Jorge Sanz) moves into the flat and then the bed of Luisa (Victoria Abril), who is mixed up with gangsters. Paco becomes obsessed, and plots with Luisa to cheat money from his virginal fiancee Trini (Maribel Verdu); it all ends in tears and other bodily fluids. If Aranda labours too hard to cram in period detail, his work is elegant and diverting enough, though probably less momentous than he hoped.

Jersey Girl is what they used to call a date movie, and takes the form of a sequence of mildly funny dates between its blue-collar heroine, Toby (Jami Gertz), and her dreamboat, the rich Manhattanite Sal (Dylan McDermott). The film begins with Toby teaching a nice, trite moral to the children in her play school, and ends with a similarly nice, trite moral for all of us: to thine own self be true, especially if thou art a cheery high prole. Even the most passionate of courting couples should not find it too hard to follow.

See listings, opposite, for details.