Film: The Big Picture - It's a web of intrigue out there

TWILIGHT (15) DIRECTOR: ROBERT BENTON STARRING: PAUL NEWMAN, GENE HACKMAN, SUSAN SARANDON 94 MINS DANCING AT LUGHNASA (PG) DIRECTOR: PAT O'CONNOR STARRING: MERYL STREEP, MICHAEL GAMBON, BRID BRENNAN 94 MINS
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The Independent Culture
Five minutes into Twilight and private dick Harry Ross (Paul Newman) gets a bullet in the crotch. The rumour around the police department where he used to work is that one half of Harry's job title is now missing, which might explain why he spends most of the movie looking so worn down and fed up. Even his moustache looks lugubrious. Then again, Harry has something to be grateful for: at least he's not dying of cancer like his friend, Jack Ames (Gene Hackman), an old movie star whose modest pleasure is beating his old pal at gin rummy. Harry, once a full-time drunk, now works in LA as a part-time, odd-job man for Jack and his sultry wife, Catherine (Susan Sarandon), the last odd job being to escort their teenage daughter home from a holiday fling in Mexico, where he caught that bullet.

As if the trio of Newman, Hackman and Sarandon on screen together weren't enough, Twilight also has Robert Benton as director and the novelist Richard Russo as writer: the last time these two collaborated was on the tender- hearted and touching Nobody's Fool (1994), so there's good cause for optimism. Common to both films is Newman playing the friend of a married couple and secret suitor of the wife. How far Harry has gone, or can go, with Catherine remains to be seen; in the meantime he has a favour to do for Jack, delivering a package to a woman named Gloria. When Harry dutifully shows up at the mystery woman's apartment, he finds instead a man dying of gunshot wounds, yet still able to squeeze off a couple of bullets in his direction. Poor Harry - all he wants is a quiet life, and now complete strangers are trying to blow holes through him.

The plot of Twilight could, on a harsh reckoning, be called trite. Private eye takes apparently straightforward job and stumbles upon labyrinth of blackmail, duplicity and murder that stretches way back into the past. One blushes to use the phrase, but what we're looking at here is a web of intrigue. Yet such familiarity can be comforting. When Harry muses in the wised-up tones of the trade ("Anytime a client hires you for a job and says don't bring a gun, you'd better bring two"), you can't help being reminded of Chandler's Marlowe, or of Lew Archer, the jaundiced private eye of Ross Macdonald's great crime novels. Same crummy job, same shifty client, same careworn integrity. This impression of the LA gumshoe as heroic loner is reinforced by the presence of James Garner as a friend of Harry's; The Rockford Files are gone but not forgotten.

Newman played Macdonald's detective in two movies (Harper and The Drowning Pool) when he was young and beautiful, and it's impossible not to read the very title of Twilight as a comment on where Newman is now. His performance is imbued with much of the poignancy he brought to The Color of Money, which caught up with Fast Eddie when he was slower, and older. The whole film has a melancholy undertow, heightened by Elmer Bernstein's smokily romantic score and Piotr Sobocinski's photography; towards the end there's a spectacular wide shot of LA, twilit and ominous, gesturing towards leave- taking and last things. For all that, Twilight feels somewhat underpowered, and not even the top-drawer cast - including a refreshingly spiky Stockard Channing - is able to galvanise it. As a portrait of encroaching age the film is very fine indeed; as a suspense drama it barely gets out of the blocks. Robert Benton always seems to promise rather more than he delivers. Nothing he's directed has ever matched his superb debut, Bad Company, back in 1972, and you get the feeling he knows it. When Newman describes the private eye's lot as "watching people run out of the little bit of luck they have left", you realise that's pretty much what Benton's been doing for the last hour and a half.

Dancing at Lughnasa, Pat Conroy's adaptation of the Brian Friel play, is hardly more uplifting. Set in rural Donegal in 1936, it concerns a household of five sisters, all unmarried, and about to be disrupted by the return of their brother, Jack, from missionary duties in Africa. Kate (Meryl Streep) is the eldest, a prissy, domineering schoolmarm who has taken on the role of mother. Maggie (Kathy Burke) keeps house while Agnes (Brid Brennan) and simple-minded Rose (Sophie Thompson) help out with pin money from knitting. The youngest, Christina (Catherine McCormack), looks after her son Michael, braving the stigma of a child born out of wedlock. Allowing for the suspicion that there's not much family resemblance between them, this is an impressive quintet of performers.

The arrival of Michael's father, Gerry (Rhys Ifans), together with the dawning realisation that brother Jack (Michael Gambon) has gone doolally after his spell in Africa, throw the sisters into confusion. Their sense of a life waiting to be seized may be sparked by folk songs from a crackling radio, or by the thrilling reports of a harvest dance to mark the festival of Lughnasa. Surely even they deserve a good time once in a while? Yet circumstance hems them around: Kate's job at the local school is under threat, while news of a wool factory opening in town means more economic hardship for the women.

Perhaps it's this gradual curdling of hope into despair that kept reminding me of Thomas Hardy, reinforced in the postscript narrated by Christina's son in adulthood. It also reminded me of why I hated the play so much: Dancing at Lughnasa is a prime example of literary sadism, offering its characters a chink of light at the end of the tunnel and then punishing them for daring to make a bolt for it. Pat Conroy's sober, handsome-looking film opens out the play, but it doesn't give the cast any more oxygen than they had in the original. The acting is beautifully nuanced, even if it's rather in love with the idea that muted misery is somehow nobler than the bust-out-crying sort. All the same, after prolonged exposure to the pinched horizons of a family that loves and hates each other, I'd sooner staple my nostrils together than sit through it again.

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