FILM / Hesitation and deviation

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GREAT scenes usually grace great films or redeem mediocre ones. But in Jonathan Demme's Philadelphia (12) there's a scene of such daring beauty that it turns the film. It comes three-quarters of the way through, as Andrew Beckett (Tom Hanks), a young lawyer with Aids who is suing his firm for unfair dismissal, bathes in the afterglow of what may be his last party. With him is his belligerently heterosexual counsel (Denzel Washington). On the stereo Maria Callas sings 'La Mamma Morta' from Andrea Chenier. Hanks translates the lyrics for his companion - 'I am love, I am life, I am oblivion' - as he falters through a lonely dance with his IV stand, his fist clenched in passion, his face wracked in pain. The background turns crimson, like the glow of desire or the coals of hell.

This is when Philadelphia comes out of the closet. Before, it has been all things to all multiplexes: a love story that dares not speak its name, a legal thriller that's fixed, a message movie that pulls its punches. Now it's unequivocally about living with Aids - and dying with it. The drama switches from the court case to Beckett's suffering. In the witness box, Hanks looks as if he has lived a lifetime through the disease's ravages, his body geriatric, his hair grey. He shows us a fine mind on its last juice, answering with a lucidity that all but conceals the terrible pain. The camera shoots his point of view at an angle, so we see the opposition on a nauseous tilt.

These are the scenes in which Tom Hanks earns his (probable) Oscar. Earlier he looks miscast. He was chosen for his unthreatening ordinariness - a sop to audiences resistant to anything to do with Aids - but his wholesomeness is an unreal movie quality, like Cary Grant's charm. In his first scenes, he's so much the model of affability - high- fiving his way into the office with a kind word and a gag for everyone - that he seems more celluloid idol than flesh and blood: a problem when the flesh and blood has to deteriorate. He only brings Beckett to life when he's beginning to die. Then he captures not only the appalling agony of the illness, but also its constant misery, peering blearily out at the world through a face that's mottled and drawn, a mask of lesions.

Denzel Washington's ambulance-chasing attorney, to whom Hanks resorts to get legal representation, is the film's most successful character. Though some of the scenes demonstrating his homophobia, which his contact with Hanks never quite assuages, are too schematic, Washington makes his heterosexuality seem not only uncomprehending but also ominous. When he smoulders into an embrace with his wife at Beckett's party, while around him men dance together in naval uniforms, it plays as an unnerving assertion of his so-called normality.

But he also has an air of being as baffled by homosexuality as hostile to it, which helps him escape the film's harsh polarities. Elsewhere there's a simplistic divide between homophobia and homophilia. Charity begins, and ends, at home, where Andy's family, who welcome his lover (Antonio Banderas, a sober foil to Hanks's expansiveness), are almost sickly in their supportiveness, smothering him in warmth and joy, as if auditioning for The Waltons. At the office all is ostracism, as the bow- tied brigade in the oak-panelled boardroom, waving their phallic cigars, close ranks against Beckett. As the firm's head, Jason Robards gives a powerfully malevolent cameo, the picture of reactionary authority.

Such sparks of acting brilliance rescue the cautious, sometimes craven script, as does Demme's inventive direction. Though the plotting reeks of safety-first commercialism, the camerawork has the dangerous intimacy of independent film-making. Throughout, Demme stays close to faces, especially Beckett's, gently tracing the limits of the flesh, in a way that seems both mournful and hopeful. The first we see of Robards testifying is a plump, tanned hand on a Bible, wedding ring glinting. Along with Demme's customary busy camera, there's his usual eclectic soundtrack - topped and tailed by Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young - most of which verges on the dirge.

Demme has succeeded in his aim to provide the first mainstream Aids film, but the aim itself is part of the film's problem - its careful inoffensiveness and placing of message before drama. Too often Philadelphia merely sets up targets to score points about prejudice. It leaves for another film the delicate task of presenting a homosexual love affair - here there is barely a kiss. All the same, when it finally throws away its inhibitions, the film presents a powerful portrait of the plight of homosexual men and all Aids sufferers. It should go some way towards shaking up the preconceptions of its audience, and fulfilling the hopes of its talented, great-hearted director.

It's now clear that John Grisham titles are all misnomers: after The Firm (which was slack), we have The Pelican Brief (15), which is almost interminable. Julia Roberts plays a sparky young law student with the unlikely name of Darby Shaw - you expect her to be languishing at the bottom of cricket's County Championship rather than making out in New Orleans with her old soak of a professor (Sam Shepard). She's not just a pretty face, though, and when two Supreme Court judges get murdered, she slaves in the library to come up with a theory connecting their deaths. When Shepard shows off his cutie's handiwork to an FBI friend in Washington, the brief turns out to have unhappy side-effects. Read it and be wiped out.

It all sounds thrilling enough. So why is it so dull? Chiefly because of a central flaw in Grisham's writing, which Hollywood is unable to smooth out - its grinding pedantry. Grisham sets up juicy plot premises, but, with his toiling over trivialities, he's unable to give a book the rushing momentum that a film needs. There's a point in The Pelican Brief where Roberts wants to track down a former intern in a law firm. We see her making a phone call, taking the number from the phone book and using a ploy to check that she has

the right person. It's a scene with no dramatic purpose except to inch the plot forward.

There is also the problem of unreality. We are in a world that closely resembles our own, but is made up of glued-together thriller cliches. It has become a Bermuda Triangle for respected directors. First, the usually reliable Sidney Pollack came to grief in The Firm. Alan J Pakula does better here, but you can't help remembering another thriller he made, almost 20 years ago, about corruption in high Washington places: All the President's Men. There he made a tense drama out of a series of phone calls whose outcome we already knew. Here, with any amount of murders, explosions and chases, he doesn't even draw us to the edge of our seats.

But never mind the longueurs, feel the star quality. Denzel Washington (having a good week) plays Darby's journalist ally: severe, trustworthy, intelligent - in other words, not a very believable journalist, but a

powerful semi-romantic lead. For Julia Roberts, the quivering-lipped damsel is less taxing than her fee will be. She benefits from a line Darby slips in about having money left to her by her father, which cushions her plight with suites in top hotels and a limitless supply of floral dresses. Long-winded to the last, the film can't resist a drawn-out coda, whose sole purpose is to finish on Julia's smile. It only reminds you that her forte is for lighter-hearted fare.

Kafka (15) is Steven Soderbergh's long-buried second film, made in 1991, but not until now released in this country. It was the follow up to Soderbergh's hit debut, sex, lies, and videotape, and is the sort of film that only a director given carte blanche could make. 'A comedy-thriller, set in 1919 Prague, shot in black and white, with the last reel in colour? When can you start?' By embroiling Kafka (Jeremy Irons) in the hunt for a missing friend, Soderbergh and writer Lem Dobbs seek to lead him to the source of his fiction's paranoic but prescient power. Instead they trivialise it. There are shafts of insight, and the photography's elegantly expressionist. But Irons, sturdily English despite a fitting heaviness of the spirit, is hopelessly miscast as the iconic, neurasthenic writer.

Cool Runnings (PG) is a broad, moderately entertaining comedy telling the true(-ish) story of how a Jamaican bobsled team got to compete at the 1988 Winter Olympics. After a glut of Nancy Kerrigan movies, it may look a lot better.

Cinema details: Review, page 74.