Laugh? I nearly took out a subscription to Mensa

It's easy to spot a genius: they have flyaway hair, messy clothes, a German accent, and they act a bit barmy. But genius comes in two brands. The cute ones twinkle merrily and dote on lesser mortals just like Santa does; stroppy ones smash up hotel rooms, shout a lot and pass out in pools of urine. For those who have difficulty keeping that principle straight, two of the week's new films offer instant succour. Fred Schepisi's I.Q. is about the cutest genius of all, Albert Einstein (who once asked: "Why is it that nobody understands me and everyone likes me?"), while Bernard Rose's Immortal Beloved is about gloomy old Ludwig van Beethoven.

Solemn viewers might regard the burden of I Q as pernicious - it's dangerously fond of stupidity - but the film is too fluffy to cause anyone insomnia. Set in the mid-1950s at Princeton (which looks glorious; bliss was it in that dawn to have tenure), I Q shows how nice Uncle Einstein (Walter Matthau) tries to fix up his niece Catherine (Meg Ryan) with Ed, a regular guy from the motor shop (Tim Robbins). There are two obstacles: she's engaged to a creepy psychologist (Stephen Fry), and her self-esteem won't let her marry anyone with an I Q below 180 or so. No sweat: Einstein and his wild and crazy pals Gdel & Co hatch a scheme to make Ed seem like a whiz at physics.

One exchange gives the basic formula for the whole movie: First Garage man: "This is Albert Einstein, the smartest person in the world." Second garage man: "Hey, how they hangin'?" Or: G (Genius) plus S (street smarts) equals B (big laffs). It's not a bad equation, and there are several charming sequences, particularly those between Matthau and Robbins ("You're Albert Einstein!" "Thank you!"). But the joke becomes samey, and Schepisi loses comic momentum. In the last analysis, it's just not clever enough.

Bernard Rose's Immortal Beloved begins like a premature remake of Bram Stoker's Dracula. Close up on the inert face of Gary Oldman as Beethoven, lying on his deathbed plastered in thick white layers of make-up left over from his role as the undead Count; lightning cracks; his eyes snap open; and - da da da daaaa! - the opening chords of the Fifth Symphony thunder from the heavens. It's fair warning: there'll be no fear of the obvious in this movie. Rose, who also wrote the screenplay, has borrowed the structure of Immortal Beloved from Citizen Kane, and its "Rosebud" is the true identity of the woman Beethoven addressed so fervently in a mysterious, much-discussed letter which he wrote from Teplitz, probably in 1812, and which was never delivered.

Scholars have put forward various plausible candidates, notably Antonie Brentano; Rose has other ideas. Biopics stand and fall, though, not by their scholarship but by their imagination. Rose's doesn't quite fall, though it certainly staggers a bit. Some of it is risible, as when Beethoven's executor, Schindler (Jeroen Krabbe), curses "zat demmned sonata, zer Kreuzer"; some of it is simply dull, and the pay-off turns on a coincidence that might have made Hardy wince. But Rose's main vice is a compulsion to harness music to narrative with excessive literal-mindedness - a habit gloriously transcended at one risky moment, during the "Ode to Joy", when a flashback to Ludwig as an abused child gives way to a vision of his naked body floating among the stars. Kitsch, yes, but weirdly transporting. And the score is wonderful.

There are many things to carp about in Gillian Armstrong's Little Women (the dialogue is tinny, the ice looks like fibreglass and Dickens never wrote a novel called Dombey and Sons, plural), but it would be churlish to grouch for long: by and large it's immensely well done. This is the third sound version of the Louisa May Alcott novel and, though George's Cukor's first (1933) and Mervyn LeRoy's second (1949) treatments are more amusing, Armstrong's is the most realistic and the most sublimely tear- jerking. The untimely demise of poor Beth (Claire Danes) has never been more harrowing.

Working from a script by Robin Swicord, Armstrong has departed from her precedents. She's the first director to cast two players in the role of Amy: the precociously accomplished Kirsten Dunst as the 12-year-old, the duller Samantha Mathis as the 16-year-old. Armstrong is also the first to sketch out a little of the intellectual background to the novel - that high-minded Transcendentalist circle of which Alcott's father was a slightly goofy luminary. Some of these allusions grate, but they help make plausible the otherwise preposterous virtuousness of the March household - where everyone from Marmee (Susan Sarandon, satisfyingly brittle) to Meg (Trini Alvarado) suffers from RSI - Relentless Self-Improvement.

They also underwrite the film's ur-feminist notes, which might sound anachronistic. Yet the book is, after all, not a manual for rookie Young Wives, but a semi-autobiographical account of how a fanciful girl might grow up into an independent writer. Armstrong stresses Alcott's closeness to Jo March by changing the title of her heroine's novel from My Beth to Little Women; and in Winona Ryder she has a really splendid Jo - not the plain, romping tomboy of earlier versions, but every bit as spirited as Katherine Hepburn, with not a shred of archness.

The idyllic title of Eden Valley is a red herring. This documentary- style drama from the Amber collective about an "old-age traveller" father (Brian Hogg) trying to cope with custody of his delinquent teenage son (Darren Bell) is studiedly downbeat, wearing its dourness as a badge of integrity. The first half-hour or so is muddy going, but the humane interest of the narrative - how his being forced to care for horses confers this twerpy specimen with a measure of dignity - gradually comes into sync with the morose style.

n For details, see Friday's listings

Kevin Jackson

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