Mad Macs v the Poms

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RELENTLESS violence and blatant racism are no strangers to Hollywood - more like family friends. But Mel Gibson's 13th-century Scottish epic, Braveheart (15), brings a new piquancy to prejudice and serves up savagery in unfamiliar garb. Here the race being discriminated against is - heaven protect us - the English. Mel's Sassenachs speak in clipped, twittish accents and behave with summary viciousness - like crosses between Monty Python characters and less sympathetic versions of the Nazis. The brutality they barter with the Scottish, giving and receiving in equal measure, is wrought with quaintly antiquated, yet lethal, weaponry. Daggers slit throats; maces smash skulls; spears split stomachs; battering rams pound through doors. If you've never been quite sure what hanging, drawing and quartering entails, here is where you will find out.

It is no wonder the Scottish National Party this week appropriated images from the film for their independence drive (to Gibson's disingenuous dismay). The movie is crudely one-sided in its portrayal of the conflict. The cruelty of Edward I (Edward Longshanks) to the Scots is an historical fact; but so is the democratic side of his nature (he inaug- urated the role of Speaker of the House of Commons), untouched on here. With Patrick McGoohan's creepy, caricature king, reason goes out of the window - as does one bungling acolyte. Gibson's shaggy-haired rebel leader William Wallace, who looks like a heavy-metal rocker transplanted back seven centuries, is equally monotone: a white knight on his charger - even if Mel's short legs lend a touch of ludicrousness to the chivalric image. We see him in love (with Catherine McCormack's doomed Highland lass, Murron); in battle (defying the odds at Stirling, Falkirk and York); and in extremis. His resilience and integrity never falter. His steely character remains stainless.

Gibson has extended his hair, but not his directorial range. His compositions lack detail and are crudely lit. He has countered the SNP by claiming that the movie is "a purely cinematic piece - and a story that could have happened anywhere".

Its bland, generalised air, heavily reliant on cliche, reflects that sentiment. There is, though, a seductive romantic lushness. When Wallace romances Murron, silhouetted against mountains on which the sun is setting with a golden embrace, it is hard not to be swept away by the shamelessness of it all. He marries her at night, next to a mound with a cross on top of it, while somewhere up in the sky, a spotlight picks out just the two of them.

But too often images are overly familiar, dim echoes of more authoritative directorial voices. When Wallace first confronts the English, he rides towards them, arms splayed out Christ-like - a borrowing from Platoon. "They may rule our lives, but they'll never have our freedom," he bellows before battle - incongruously ripping off the cadence and lyrics of a Whitney Houston song. James Horner's rousing theme tune is not so far removed from "I vow to thee my country", that most English of hymns. Since Gibson portrays the English as the devil, he may have assumed they had the best tunes. When he is not relying on coatings of music, Gibson resorts to slow-motion sequences. He might have reduced the three-hour running time by shooting more of the film at regular speed.

The film's fight sequences have already been much praised, and they are triumphs of logistics and clarity. Vast armies fight and manoeuvre and we never lose the thread of the action. At Stirling, the flights of arrows from the English archers (who outnumber the Scots by three to one) rain down in the same deadly, black showers as they did at Agincourt in Olivier's Henry V. And Gibson captures the exhilarating athleticism of medieval warfare - adversaries running full speed towards each other, pumped up beyond fear or feeling. What's missing is much sense of the horror or suffering of warfare, the appalling mire of mortality that makes the battle scenes in Orson Welles's Chimes at Midnight still the greatest ever shot. After the battle of Falkirk, Wallace talks of "those men who bled the ground red". It's a great image, but one that we never see.

This is Hollywood's second Scottish foray of the summer, after Rob Roy. The Scots may count themselves relatively fortunate. Both films have at least a semblance of intelligence (they were both written by Scots), and are handsome advertisements for the Scottish landscape (even though much of Braveheart was shot in Ireland). Rob Roy's salty script was infinitely superior to Braveheart's froth (the screenplay was written by Randall Wallace, a descendent of William). Both films are not so much about Scotland, as what it is to be a man. For Rob Roy, honour is an indulgence, "a man's gift to himself". Braveheart, untrue to its name, values intellect above courage - "It's our wits that make us men" - but too often undermines its argument by its own witlessness. A host of under-used supporting characters includes Sophie Marceau's Princess Isabelle, negotiating terms with Wallace for her father-in-law, the king; and Angus Macfadyen, as Robert the Bruce, the film's staid narrator. Mel Gibson must try, try and try again.

The Chinese director He Ping's third film, Red Firecracker, Green Firecracker (15), is, in both form and feeling, closely related to the work of Zhang Yimou (especially Yimou's mas- terpiece, Jou Dou). It is a lucidly told, elegantly lit tale of suppressed sexual desire, set around a firework factory beside the Yellow River (which turns out to be a shimmering turquoise) in northern China. The factory is run by a woman, who acts as "master" of the owning family. Her regime is so severe that we feel it must be a mask - or a shield - for her femininity. The arrival of a sensual young painter sends her into turmoil. She caresses the lip on his portrait of her, as if seeking to trace her buried sexuality. She is madly attracted to him, but just at the point of contact, duty - like a hand clasping her head - pulls her back. After an act of dissent, he is punished with one of the most ingenious tortures ever filmed - hung over a fire wearing a garland of explosives, so that with any relaxation he will detonate himself. The climax is more of a damp squib. But the film is further evidence of the strength of the new Chinese cinema.

Dolores Claiborne (18) is a downbeat Stephen King adaptation, in which Jennifer Jason Leigh plays a daughter returning to her home in Maine to find her crotchety mother (Kathy Bates) accused of murdering her employer. Christopher Plummer is all crusty complacency as the local police chief determined to nail Bates, having let her get away with the killing of her abusive husband (David Strathairn) 20 years earlier. It is well-acted and nicely textured, but scenes of euthanasia and child molestation, a flurry of violence and confusing flashbacks, and Leigh's hard, angry face ensure that it's no barrel of laughs.

Cinema details: Review, page 68.