FILM: Staring into the abyss

NEW RELEASES Reviewed by Anthony Quinn
The Sea Inside (PG)

Alejandro Amenabar

(126 mins) iii88

STARRING Javier Bardem, Jola Duenas, Belen Rueda

The Door in the Floor (15)

Tod Williams

(111 mins) ii888

STARRING Jeff Bridges, Kim Basinger, Jon Foster

The great Spanish actor Javier Bardem takes on his most challenging role yet in Alejandro Amenabar's drama The Sea Inside. To play the real-life writer Ramon Sampedro he has been required to learn one language - Galician - and to refrain from using another - body language.

Sampedro, a former merchant seaman who had travelled the world, was paralysed from the neck down in a diving accident; he lay immobile in bed for nearly 30 years, from where he launched a public campaign to win the right to end his life with dignity. Bardem, despite these physical constraints, gives a performance of extraordinary intimacy and tenderness, for he understands that an actor's most revealing gift is his eyes. Through them he allows us to trace a lifetime of anguish, yet also a spirit of geniality and resilience that induced family and friends, literally, to wait on him hand and foot.

The story concerns the relationship between Ramon and two women who become involved in his plight. One is Julia (Belen Rueda), a lawyer who is herself suffering from a degenerative disease and thus understands too well his longing to escape his constricted existence. The cigarette they occasionally share smoulders with ambiguity: he jokes that it might help speed him on his way to death, but its switch from her lips to his lights the fuse of romantic possibility.

The other woman who befriends him is Rosa (Lola Duenas), a factory worker who has been inspired by his benign grace under pressure; a single mother with two children, she has been damaged by her disastrous choice of men, and now sees it as her mission to save this morbid soul from himself. It illustrates a paradox: though Ramon hungers for his own death, the example of his quiet fortitude has inspired others to re-evaluate their lives.

Amenabar, who directed Open Your Eyes and the Nicole Kidman ghost story The Others, is somewhat obsessed with mortality himself, and this latest movie explores, sometimes poignantly, the shadowlands between life and death. Ramon, marooned in a broken body, seems to occupy a quasi-posthumous limbo: he feels he ought to have died when he broke his neck in the accident.

Amenabar's approach to his subject is lyrical rather than realistic; the script talks frequently of the "indignity" attached to the quadriplegic condition, though what we are shown is the solicitude of Ramon's sister- in-law Manuela (Mabel Rivera) and the practical can-do of his nephew Javi (Tamar Novas), who fixes the gadgets that make a disabled life slightly easier. When Ramon seems to be fantasising about suicide by throwing himself from a window, the camera skims the ground before hurtling across the countryside in a flight of delirious fancy.

The film is not without its flaws. The score, composed by Amenabar, is a busy mixture of Gaelic pipes and drums whose winsomeness quickly grates: it trails the "let's cheer this plucky underdog" message much too shrilly. There is also the problem of being able to guess the film's emotional terminus. Objectors to the right-to-choose philosophy are allowed their say - a quadriplegic cleric comes to Ramon's house and, unable to mount the stairs to his room, argues the church's position from the hallway - but the script never lets us doubt that self-determination will win the day. Bardem's performance, however, is a small miracle of expressiveness, and seems to contain the regret of a lifetime in his sad smile.

I have invariably loathed all the movie versions of John Irving's books, so had no happy expectations for The Door in The Floor, Tod Williams's adaptation of Irving's 1998 novel A Widow For One Year. Then again, it stars Jeff Bridges, one of America's most cherishable institutions, so there is at least one reason to see it. He plays Ted Cole, a children's author whose relationship with Marion (Kim Basinger), his wife, has stalled in a rut of grief since the death of their teenage sons in a car accident. To their East Hampton beach house comes a callow prep-schooler, Eddie (Jon Foster), whom Ted has hired as driver and summer assistant just as he and Marion are beginning a trial separation. Eddie, who has literary ambitions, reveres Ted's work, though discovers that the man himself spends more time in the bed of a local divorcee (Mimi Rogers) than at his desk. Instead of learning about sentences from Ted, he learns about sex from Marion, who takes pity on the boy after surprising him with his pants down, and soon he's quite the Fast Eddie.

The strength of the film lies in its casting. Bridges, rumpled, unshaven and apt to wander around in his night-shirt, revisits his look from The Big Lebowski, though not the stoner amiability; he catches exactly the self-absorption of the dissatisfied writer, and the competitiveness. "Oh, it seems true," he says on reading Eddie's first short story, "it just isn't very interesting." Foster as the youthful go-between is believably diffident and gawky, and skilful enough to earn our sympathy rather than beg for it.

For a while these two performances and the gorgeous pearly light of the Hamptons coastline are sufficiently absorbing for us to pardon the film's high-toned soapiness, but it loses its grip during the whimsical switch to farce in the final half-hour. I felt sorry for Rogers having to endure most of its cruelty, while Bijou Phillips must have been wondering where her performance as Alice ended up - the cutting-room floor seems most likely. The last scene, explaining the film's enigmatic title, is a fizzle; or, to quote Ted, it seems true, it just isn't very interesting.

Jeff Bridges is interviewed on page 8