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FILM / No crock of gold at the end of this rainbow alliance

FILMS attacking apartheid can be too fond themselves of divisions into black and white. So it might be thought an advantage of Friends (15) that it's a moral blur. A tale of three Johannesburg college girls, each (rather neatly) from a different ethnic background, it first shows them together on their graduation day. The giggles of the group photograph are interrupted by chants from a passing protest. Sophie (Kerry Fox), an affluent white girl who we've seen setting off for the ceremony from her spruce-lawned family home, half raises a hand in solidarity and lets out a muted 'Amandla]' Her face betrays foreboding, almost distaste.

That moment might have built into an examination of the ethics of violent opposition. But though it spans turbulent events in recent South African history (from 1985 to 1990), this is not really a political film. Its focus is the three girls: black teacher Thoko (Dambisa Kente), Afrikaner archaeologist Aninka (Michele Burgers) and, by far the most developed character, Sophie, who stocks library books by day and delivers bombs by night. (As played by Fox, flame-haired star of An Angel at My Table, she's an oddly conspicuous subversive.) We watch Sophie plant a bomb at Jan Smuts Airport that kills two people, and see her guilt spreading, like an ink-stain, to darken the trio's friendship. Sophie herself is consumed with anguish - if not remorse - unable to sleep until she gives herself up.

To understand the friendship's crack-up, we need a sense of the ties that bound it. But Sophie's friends are ciphers, black holes for her to pour her rage into. They're pallidly played and written: Thoko teaches her charges Yeats but hardly seems to have a view on the 'terrible beauty' of her own people's revolution; Aninka is less fully drawn than her gruff husband. When we see the three women lying together in a sauna, it's the only time their relationship generates any steam. The film lurches between climaxes, never preparing them. Only Kerry Fox has any depth - an inner turmoil that suggests that her violence may be innate as well as political.

This is director Elaine Proctor's first full-length feature, and it has the debutante's frantic visual invention, snappily paced and boldly framed. Proctor goes for any shot but the obvious one: a crane sequence at Aninka's wedding is so involved that it's hard to concentrate on the speeches. Contrast the steady grace with which Chris Menges shot his debut, A World Apart, also a female South African resistance tale, and his careful development of its relationship between mother and daughter. That film closed on a freeze-frame of a black man about to throw a missile at the police. It seemed to stop on the brink of endorsing violence. When Friends finishes, we still don't know where it stands.

It's a safe rule that films whose titles pun on characters' names are dire. Why were the Blues (Jeff and Jane, played by Dennis Quaid and Kathleen Turner) in Harold Ross's new comedy-thriller so called? So the title could be Undercover Blues (12), which starts the movie off on a note of desperate contrivance. The plot follows suit: we're supposed to believe Dennis and Kathleen are a pair of former FBI agents, holidaying in New Orleans with their baby, and lured into a scam involving Czech spy Fiona Shaw and a case of plastic explosives. Set- pieces take over. The best joke is the old one, borrowed from Bond, of the persistent assassin (Stanley Tucci) set on vengeance but only meeting humiliation.

You can see what they're getting at: a Nineties version of those Thirties Thin Man films in which William Powell and Myrna Loy startled their audience by grafting screwball on to detection, all high jinks and long drinks. But they were as sophisticated as a dry martini, while Quaid and Turner have a bourbon boorishness. Only five years ago they might have been a golden couple, but now they've lost their lustre. Quaid is overshadowed by his wife, Meg Ryan, and Turner (ungallant to say) is fading fast. They both made their mark oozing sleaze, which went out with the Eighties, in favour of today's more buttoned-up eroticism.

The Northerners (15) goes for drier comedy, rarely disturbing its placid surface with anything so raucous as a laugh, but cracking into the odd smile - a mix of the deadpan and the dead boring. It creates its own comic world, taking you as deep into a remote Dutch housing estate as you'll want to go, and peopling it with eccentrics and inadequates. Nobody is sexually satisfied: the priapic butcher is stuck with a devoutly religious partner, while a romance-starved wife has an impotent husband in pork-pie hat and plus fours. There's no privacy, with every moment observed through some curtain or doorway; and yet there's no malicious gossip - in fact, there's little talk at all. All very rum, and that's without mentioning the nymph in the forest pool or the boy who thinks he's a Congan chief. In this grim, fallen world the best humour is visual. Funereal but fun.

Hear No Evil (15) makes an early bid for worst film of the year, with all the qualities the judges look for: a terrible idea poorly executed; a cast with less charisma than the people you sit opposite on the bus; and a script that's a patchwork of inanities. Marlee Matlin plays a deaf girl caught in a chase for a stolen coin. Her sweetness suggests she's without cynicism as well as hearing - making the title conceit just believable. But it's sad to see Martin Sheen flounder as the crooked police chief, face fattened out, sandpaper voice newly bland. The confused climax is a masterclass in poor direction.

Just space to note a pair of re-releases. Alain Resnais' 1978 Providence (18), shot in elegant autumnal hues, is more fun than his Last Year at Marienbad, chiefly due to a vintage performance by John Gielgud as its novelist narrator, whose imaginings and family affairs get entangled. With his red nose and rheumy cackle, he's a cross between Prospero and Caliban.

Jim Jarmusch's Stranger than Paradise (15) is now a decade old, and few films since have given such a sense of life as it is really lived in America. Its tale of two immigrant boys and a visiting Hungarian cousin tasting the trivia of freedom is clear-eyed, wistful and funny. It comes with Jarmusch's winner of the 1993 Cannes Palme D'Or for best short, Coffee and Cigarettes (PG), in which Iggy Pop and Tom Waits banter over their inclusion in the juke box. No masterpiece, but in a week like this we must be thankful for small mercies.

Cinema times: Review, page 66.