Sylvia<br></br>Cold Creek Manor<br></br>The Emperor's New Clothes<br></br>S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine<br></br>The Three Marias

Like an Ali biopic without a right hook

The new Sylvia Plath biopic, Sylvia (15), takes us from the day Plath met Ted Hughes in 1956 in Cambridge (bicycles and gowns... check; cobbles and quadrangles... check) to the day after her suicide aged 30 in 1963. It gives us a taste of the poets' working lives, their fights, and their rift, but it shows us nothing of Plath's existence pre-Hughes, and we get no sense that anyone else ever meant anything to her. Like Iris and Frida, it's a film that gets its title from the name of an artistic woman, but that really should have her spouse's name tacked on. Before they met each other, Plath tells Hughes, they each had a hole in them in the shape of the other person.

Unfortunately, Sylvia has a gaping hole in it, too, and it's shaped like the couple's writing. Their daughter, Frieda Hughes, withheld copyright of her parents' words, so the film lets us hear almost none of Hughes' poetry, and just a few soundbites of Plath's. It's like a Muhammad Ali biopic without any right hooks to the jaw. With her poetry off limits, neither John Brownlow, the writer, nor Christine Jess, the director, can identify which other factors made Plath a feminist icon. We see someone who gets writer's block, but still finishes a novel and two volumes of poetry; who's not as feted as her husband, but does get published and reviewed; who sometimes likes housework and sometimes doesn't; who is neither overjoyed nor dispirited by motherhood; and who loves Hughes, but whose marriage isn't much more tragic and fiery than most are. So what's the big deal? While it's commendable of Brownlow and Jess not to sensationalise Plath's life, it's a shame that the only facet of her that they emphasise with any assurance is how obnoxious she could be.

That's not to say that the film isn't buoyed up by some lovely imagery, because it is. Also, Daniel Craig is commanding as Hughes, and Gwyneth Paltrow is superb as she spirals from blithe confidence to boiling rage and then glowering despair. It's a sensitive portrait of a woman suffering from depression. But you've only to read one of Plath's poems or a chapter of The Bell Jar to know how much more to her there was than that.

Just a week after Scary Movie 3 came out, I thought I was watching Scary Movie 4 - a backwoods horror spoof in which some snakes pursue their human prey up several flights of stairs, a pet pony is found dead in the swimming pool, and the dubious handyman, Stephen Dorff, usually has his shirt off, so that we can see his bronzed, oiled pecs. In fact I was watching Cold Creek Manor (15), an overlong, cliché-packed thriller starring Dennis Quaid and Sharon Stone as two New Yorkers who move with their two children to the country. Their ridiculously roomy house may just contain some dark secrets the estate agent didn't mention.

Ian Holm is on delightful form in The Emperor's New Clothes (PG), playing Napoleon for the third time in his career. The film hypothesises that the emperor didn't die on St Helena, as the history books tell us. He was sneaked off the island, and a double, also played by Holm, was installed in his place. ("He looks nothing like me," snorts Napoleon.) The real Bonaparte then makes his way to Paris to reclaim power, but his plans go awry, and he has to bide his time, lodging with a pretty widow, Pumpkin (Iben Hjejle), and employing his strategic brilliance to revitalise her melon-selling business. Could happiness come not from world domination but from Pumpkin and melons? The Emperor's New Clothes is a light, gentle confection, better suited to a Sunday evening in front of the TV than to a Saturday night at the multiplex.

S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine (nc) is a guided tour of a detention centre in Phnom Penh where 17,000 prisoners were tortured and executed between 1975 and 1979. It's almost unbearably harrowing. Our guides are former guards who describe their sickening duties in matter-of-fact tones. But the emotional climax of Rithy Panh's documentary comes when one of the few surviving prisoners asks his erstwhile jailers how they could have done what they did, his calm but insistent questions sounding uncannily like those of a head teacher asking some pupils what they thought they were doing kicking a football around so close to a window. Indeed, S21 had previously been a school, and many of the guards there were as young as 13.

The Three Marias (15) is a Brazilian revenge western. It's shot in a heightened style comparable to that of Robert Rodriguez, but isn't half as well done as any of his films.

n.barber@independent.co.uk

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