FILM / Schlesinger's massacre of 'The Innocent'

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The Independent Culture
JOHN SCHLESINGER'S version of Ian McEwan's The Innocent (15) is an oddly disjointed piece of film-making - and I don't think that's out of homage to the famous scene in the novel in which a man gets dismembered. There are good performances, a decent sense of place (both of 1950s Berlin and, in two framing scenes, of Berlin as the Wall fell) and moments of horror and macabre humour. But Schlesinger doesn't draw them together or impose a visual style. It's his fourth recent venture into espionage, and it's easy to see something of the spy in Schlesinger himself - not so much a betrayal of his talent, as a refusal to reveal himself, a cautious evasiveness.

The novel has been described as Graham Greene-ish, and the problems in adapting it are of the sort that stymied films of Greene's novels. Despite the thriller milieu, much of the action is interior: a description of the hero, intelligence man Leonard Marnham's journey from innocence to experience. Campbell Scott (son of George C) is odd casting as this quiet Englishman, but turns out to be the best thing in the movie. Stiff and vaguely donnish, in tweed jacket and steel-rimmed circular specs, he's the quintessence of awkward manhood, a prig who would like to be a rake. When he is initiated by his German lover (Isabella Rossellini, in another one-dimensional role), there's a trace of McEwan's momentous tenderness: 'Sitting in the darkening, chilly room in his raincoat, holding on to her hand, he felt he was throwing away his life. The abandonment was delicious.'

Leonard's professional subterfuge is twofold. He works in the Berlin Tunnel, the joint CIA-MI6 Operation Gold, which, until April 1956, penetrated the Russian sector and eavesdropped on Communist communications. (The film is far sketchier about this than the book.) At the same time MI6 presses him to come up with information the Americans won't vouchsafe. He becomes locked in a relationship of mutual distrust with his bluff American superior (Anthony Hopkins). Hopkins plays the sort of cocksure Yank who can't pass a game of American football without picking up the ball and turning quarterback, who refers to 'the good old US of A'. He doesn't convince for a minute. You might as well cast Charles Bronson in a Merchant-Ivory film. It's a crippling blunder, since the book is a careful study of Old and New World manners. American brashness is played off against British scepticism, reflecting opposite expectations of the new world order - of hegemony and eclipse.

The book's opening states that Leonard 'had never actually met an American to talk to, but he had studied them in depth at his local Odeon'. This is not only a hint at the importance of ideas of nationality,

but also a suggestion that Leonard belongs to the first generation whose idea of the world was shaped by the movies (when he first has sex, he's described as finding it 'like going to see a film that everybody else had been talking about'). You can imagine the movie imagery this theme might have opened up, but Schlesinger makes nothing of it.

He's more inventive with the dismemberment scene, replacing the book's unblinking description with the scene outside the house of horror, focusing on the noise and movement of a group of children playing ball - the scratch of a child's thigh against the ground, the slap of the ball, the snipping of a woman peeling potatoes at the side. Every grating sound except the one we expect to hear - that of blade against bone.

It has a similar effect to

the notorious ear-severing scene in Reservoir Dogs, where the camera wandered to the side, averting its gaze, but not alleviating our discomfort - a reminder that for all its reputation for irresponsibility, film is more squeamish than literature. But it still doesn't quite work, because it leaves the audience uninvolved in the crime, allowing the film to veer towards farce, where in the novel the reader felt strangely implicated. Schlesinger gives us a serviceable fusion of romance and melodrama, but he betrays the book's dark heart, the innocent's terrible guilt.

A score draw in the sequels league: Beverly Hills Cop III (15) - Robocop 3 (15). But both may be heading for relegation from the blockbuster division. Each needs a playmaker, or a decent screenwriter, to slow the action down in the middle of the fray. Beverly Hills Cop III resurrects Eddie Murphy's Axel Foley to investigate shady business in the Disney- style Wonderworld. Scope for fun and games, you'd think, but it's all strangely muted, especially since the director is John Landis, whose films are usually mindless but not joyless. The big budget has cramped his off- beat style. There's a problem too with Murphy, who has lost his rogueish charm, the brio even gone out of his wide-eyed stare. He acts like the tycoon

he has become, as if his mind was on the next meeting. Maybe this care-worn Eddie should now put his famous grin at the service of a baddie. After all, one may smile and smile and be a villain.

Robocop 3 has taken a long time arriving here (the film was completed in 1992), and its vision of the future is beginning to look passe. The robot still has the same relentless, clumping tread and steely, psychopathic charm. But the plot, in which Robocop battles evil capitalists who are evicting the poor from their homes, is not terribly original. And the special effects, particularly the matte work, after the digital editing of films like Cliffhanger and Jurassic Park, look out of the Stone Age. More promising, but underdeveloped, are the crises the Robot undergoes, when malign forces seek to strip away his memory. It's the old chestnut about whether machines can have feelings, but it should

have been given another roasting, instead of the city of Detroit getting one.

Golden Balls (18) is the latest sex comedy from the Spanish director Bigas Luna, who seems to be on a mission single- handedly to confirm the cliche of the red-hot Spanish lover. Around three-quarters of the scenes involve some sort of explicit sexual congress, and when they don't, the sexual symbolism is just as pressing - the hero is set on building the biggest skyscraper in Benidorm. Oddly, it doesn't feel exploitative, because Luna seems to know what he's doing - indulgently satirising machismo and acquisitiveness, I would guess. He often overstretches himself (especially in a surreal section in which two naked men crouch, foetally, in a pair of giant eggs, and ants swarm over a woman's vagina), but he gets likeable, kitschy performances out of his actors. While Luna reaches for the moon, we have to make do with the stars.

The British film Shopping (18) takes the topical subject of teenage joyriding and treats it with near-pornographic sensationalism. Jude Law is the teenage tearaway, whose idea of a good night out is a crash through a boutique window and a high-speed game of chicken with on-coming police cars. Sadie Frost is his screeching Irish girlfriend. And Jonathan Pryce plays the weary cop on the case. But this is a film without characters, in the traditional sense: there's not an ounce of ethical, emotional or intellectual interest. And not much cinematic style - it's like reading a piece of fiction by a writer who has never read a good novel. Following The Young Americans, it highlights a depressing phenomenon - a generation of young British directors whose dearest wish is to be Hollywood hacks. Needless to say, Shopping's director, Paul Anderson, has just landed a dollars 20m movie with an American studio. It has to be admitted that he brings off a smart ending, a kind of coup de disgrace.