Stella (Georgina Cates) is a teenage dreamer in post-war Liverpool, wallpapering over her accent with how-now-brown-cows in preparation for an acting career. When local repertory director Meredith Potter (Hugh Grant) hires her as dogsbody on his production of Peter Pan, she falls in love with him, too green to notice that he's having his way with a young male stagehand.
Cates's youth also makes her easy game for P L O'Hara (Alan Rickman), the in-house Casanova who is lured back to rep to play Captain Hook. When Rickman first appears, we don't hear his voice - that luxurious tiger's purr. But his composure is still transfixing: he studies his fellow actors as though hunting them. The only time he's ruffled is during rehearsal, when Cates commits a faux pas: she prompts him, thinking he has forgotten his lines when he's actually making a dramatic pause. Rickman's startled by her insolence - and he's hooked. The second time they make love, he even takes his vest off.
Visually, the film marks a return to the kitchen-sink, so steeped in grey that the red of a phone box burns exotically on a broken pavement. If the locations have been shelled, so, too, have the characters' hearts. Newcomer Cates is painfully raw. She has some crisply memorable moments - her profanities sound blunt and brash, and she gives a nice nervous wobble of the head when among those she considers her betters.
But the most startling thing here is Hugh Grant as a De Sade in luvvy's clothing. Grant embroiders him with impeccable details (a Medusa glare of disdain, two nicotine-yellow fingers that could have been dipped in creosote), while writer Charles Wood, adapting Beryl Bainbridge's novel, conveys the basics with admirable economy. "I'm having trouble finding my character," confides an actor seeking his director's guidance. "So I've noticed," snaps Grant, and storms off. That's his idea of creative tension.
He would do well to keep sniffing out roles like this. There's an almost audible buzz of menace when Rickman tries to blackmail him into giving up the forlorn lad he's been stringing along. Grant, fastening his colleague's tie as he speaks, reminds him of his own indiscretions with the under- age Cates. The air crackles; for one unbearable minute, these two narcissistic old hams seem like alley cats spoiling for a scrap. It's the only time Newell really fills out the screen, and it jolts you.
If the film seems finally to settle on an epic message - that no matter how far we come, all roads lead back home - then at least it has the modesty to refrain from false grandiloquence. Ridiculing its thespian characters, it balances the bleakness with a mischievous spot of wound-licking: you think real life is tough, it says, you should work in the theatre.
Jessica Lange won the Best Actress Oscar for Blue Sky (12), director Tony Richardson's last film. Made in 1991, it gets a single-screen release this week at the NFT. This is criminal: it's an exhilarating, if inchoate film. Lange plays the fiery, flirtatious wife of army scientist Tommy Lee Jones, against a background of the 1960s nuclear tests. The setting is a mirror of their marriage - where most couples have hot-tempered spats, Lange and Jones have car chases.
Technically, there are hiccups - the editing sometimes suggests that the scissors have slipped - but watching Lange and Jones together is like being caught in sheet lightning. After years littered with infidelities, their relationship finally threatens to combust when she takes an improper interest in his boss (Powers Boothe), writhing with him at an army dance. Jones loiters at the bar, compelled to watch them by the same morbid lust which attracts passers-by to road accidents. He shuts his eyes, and tries to pretend that it's not his wife on the dance floor, in the rawest performance he has given us. It will be a tragedy if this film does not earn a wider release.
The new Jim Carrey vehicle Dumb and Dumber (12) leaves no orifice unprobed in its pathological quest for the ultimate bad-taste gag. It's body humour: the comedy equivalent of a David Cronenberg movie. Mucus is worn like a moustache, urine gulped from a bottle, coffee spiked with laxatives. Be grateful it wasn't shot in Odorama.
Carrey and Jeff Daniels play Lloyd and Harry, two bozo chums crossing the US to return a briefcase to its owner. The best parts dare us to laugh at our own forgotten puerility. It may not work for some: if you didn't find gags about flatulence and nasal hair funny at eight, chances are they won't have improved with time.
Carrey, an inspired but formerly selfish comedian, doesn't bulge from the screen here - he behaves like a performer rather than a star, and works with some diligence setting up gags in which he doesn't necessarily carry the pay-off. What makes this fantasy of anti-social behaviour so painfully funny, is the gulf between etiquette and vulgarity, the desire to be a child whooping it up in the adult world. Or maybe it's just all the snot and diarrhoea.
There's dumb, there's dumber, and then there's Terminal Velocity (15). As a wise-cracking sky-diving instructor, Charlie Sheen wears his usual look of someone who has just been asked a really difficult question (like: how come your career has lasted this long?).The early espionage plot is piffle, but writer David Twohy switches tack half-way through and plumps instead for laughs. "Do you even know what's going on in Russia?" Nastassja Kinski asks Sheen, unaware that she's talking to someone who has difficulty under- standing the instructions on a Cup-A-Soup sachet. It closes with its stars taking a romantic stroll through Moscow with a three-legged Alsatian, and is thus absolved of all its sins.
The animation in Disney's 101 Dalmatians (U), made in 1960, looks scrappy 30 years on: its backgrounds might have been scratched out with a rusty nail rather than drawn. But what a breeze it is after The Lion King's pomposity. It has the bubbly air of a 1950s sitcom, though I wasn't so taken with the scene where a dead pup is magically "rubbed" back to life - a bit awkward to explain to the kids, that one. Oddly comforting, still, to find Cruella De Ville such a horror, even in these post-Ab Fab days. Wielding her cigarette holder as she announces herself with a cry of "Dahhhling!", she was clearly the inspiration behind Hugh Grant's latest role.
Cinema details: see Review, page 90, plus Easter-holiday guide to children's films, page 28.
Quentin Curtis returns next week.