Intermission<br></br>Bigger Than Life

No, this is love, actually

If you're after a sprawling, uproarious ensemble comedy that keeps its multiple strands criss-crossing with breathtaking brio, then Love Actually is absolutely not the film you want to see, and Intermission definitely is. If you'll excuse the cultural stereotyping, director John Crowley and writer Mark O'Rowe's Dublin-set story is the heady, gullet-scorching poteen to Richard Curtis's supermarket sherry.

Intermission is crafty, nifty and constantly surprising, right from the opening sequence - about which reviewers are asked to be discreet. "Don't reveal the opening" is a new one on me, but fair enough. At any rate, it's clear from the start that the film will have no truck with the cosy Irish commonplaces - which is no doubt why it has done spectacularly well at the domestic box-office. Just as the film seems to be over-milking Colin Farrell's hugely marketable loverboy charisma, in comes a curveball to tell you that Crowley is after sterner stuff from him, and that Farrell - Hollywood image notwithstanding - is game.

Farrell is more than believable as Lehiff, a strutting petty thug with a yen for bourgeois domesticity in the shape of woks and fancy cooking oils. The actor's status as returning local boy made good may be one of the film's box-office assets, but he's just one ingredient in a rich and various stew cooked up with confidence by stage director Crowley and playwright O'Rowe (best known for Howie the Rookie). There are 11 main strands, 54 characters (according to the notes, but I'm not counting) and they all knit together rigorously. Young supermarket worker John (Cillian Murphy) has split up with his girlfriend Deirdre (Kelly McDonald), who has taken up with married bank manager Sam, whose wife Noeleen (Deirdre O'Kane) finds solace in a frenzied affair with John's sex-starved mate Oscar (David Wilmot) - pause for breath - while Deirdre's love-burned sister Sally (Shirley Henderson) witnesses a freak bus accident and is filmed by TV producer Ben (Tomas O'Sulleibhain), who's secretly making a hard-bitten profile of copper Jerry (Colm Meaney), who's out to get Lehiff, who has a proposition to put to John... As Lehiff puts it, "You just never know what's gonna happen."

Intermission lives up to this promise, even when it appears to play out standard suburban TV drama tropes. The Murphy/McDonald strand looks like a mundane tale of young love thwarted, until you realise how much spleen is involved - how much furious resentment John directs at Deirdre, who in turn has latched onto Sam (an impeccably slimy Michael McElhatton) for the most questionable reasons, while he in turn has ditched Noeleen with outrageous callousness. When Noeleen gets even by rediscovering her sexuality, she uses the eager Oscar just as cruelly, amorously/angrily ripping his back to shreds ("a bit of pain-slash-pleasure", he crows till it all gets too much).

Although we come to feel sympathy for everyone, there are few really sympathetic characters here, and several downright monsters. The most flamboyant is self-aggrandising cop Jerry, who fancies himself as a maverick on a lone mission to clean up Dublin's mean streets. His violence is one thing, but what makes him memorably appalling is his sentimentality. Pummelling a punchbag almost as chunkily padded as Colm Meaney himself, he declares, "My only really human quality to speak of is a fondness for Celtic mysticism" - which means that the film wittily punishes us with much Clannad-style ooh and aah on the soundtrack.

O'Rowe has created some freakish but believable bit parts: a paraplegic pub bore, a sexed-up OAP, a horrific little boy who's the walking embodiment of all that's worst about Dublin. There are rich threads of one-liners, and outré running gags: a dazzlingly handled routine about brown sauce in tea, and a gently cruel one about Sally's moustache, about which everyone manages to be spectacularly tactless ("You're no Tom Selleck, but...").

There's barely a false move among the cast, but if anyone steals the film it's Meaney, with his grandly self-deluding fool spouting O'Rowe's touches of cod-Scorsese dialogue. And Shirley Henderson, shyly emitting wounded rasps from deep inside her anorak, is at the other end of the spectrum, discreetly but cuttingly fine.

Crowley directs with unshowy briskness, with Ryszard Lenczewski's deliberately rough, mundane lensing giving the film a harshness that keeps the farce in the realm of the real. There's only one touch of softness, a closing declaration of love - and even then we're aware of it as callow teenage rhetoric, a still moment before the chaos erupts again, as it surely will. Love may come into Intermission, certainly, but so do crime, rage, resentment and terror, actually - the whole human comedy, more or less, and about as rawly entertaining as it comes.

Nicholas Ray's 1956 melodrama Bigger Than Life will be a must for anyone who (re-)discovered Douglas Sirk through Far From Heaven, yet it's hard to imagine a comparable attempt to lovingly pastiche Ray's film - Bigger Than Life is far too severe and extreme for that. Despite being set in a similar family world to much of Sirk, Ray's story is rather closer to Strindberg. Mason plays Ed Avery, a schoolteacher prescribed cortisone for a life-threatening arterial condition. The drug saves his life, but that's where his troubles really start, as this mild, dutiful man becomes first flamboyant, then crazily authoritarian, and at last satanically proud, delivering the line that must have had jaws dropping in mid-Fifties America and still stops you in your tracks today: "God was wrong!" Ray's film, seemingly a precursor of today's problem-of-the-week TV movies, isn't really about cortisone at all, but about the society that produces its hero's traumatised psychology: Mason's Avery is Fifties America's return-of-the-repressed in human form. Ray tells his story in stark visuals: claustrophobically framed in CinemaScope, the Avery family house is grey and stony, the little pink pill bottle screaming like an alarm out of the medicine cabinet.

Mason produced the film, putting his smooth star persona on the line. His creation of such a rebarbative middle-American monster was a daring move, suggesting that it wasn't quite such a reckless leap into the unknown for him to play Humbert Humbert for Stanley Kubrick five years later.

j.romney@independent.co.uk

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