NEW FILMS

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The Independent Culture
COLD COMFORT FARM

Director: John Schlesinger. Starring: Eileen Atkins, Kate Beckinsale, Joanna Lumley, Ian McKellen (PG)

It's ironic that Cold Comfort Farm, first shown on television here two years ago, should now win a cinema release on the strength of its American success, given that one of its own characters is a simple country boy who ends up jetting off to find fame and fortune in Hollywood on the arm of a fast-talking producer. The film doesn't really look comfortable on a cinema screen, but it's an enjoyable distraction which gives oxygen to the more gracious tendencies of the director John Schlesinger. Too often, Schlesinger takes on projects which you immediately feel the urge to snatch out of his hands, much as you would place dangerous objects on a high shelf beyond the reach of young children.

And yet there is another side to this infuriating director, which knows how to shoot actors simply and elegantly. Like his work on Alan Bennett's An Englishman Abroad, Cold Comfort Farm sparkles because it is so effortless, so unfussy. Schlesinger has been blessed with a light, witty script (by Malcolm Bradbury, adapted from Stella Gibbons's novel) and a cast who are generous enough to pump real blood into roles which teeter an the edge of caricature. It helps that the tone has a certain distance from the story - a film whose heroine insists at the outset that she wants to learn about living "to put it in books", it's unlikely to resist commentating on the relationship between art and life, and Schlesinger manages this cool detachment very well.

But the warmth of the performances prevents the film from feeling cynical. As Flora, the newly orphaned socialite in 1930s London, Kate Beckinsale combines a brusque restlessness with a rich love of life, so that her orderly impulses are informed by genuine heart. When she arrives in Sussex to stay with the Starkadders at Cold Comfort Farm, she doesn't set about transforming their lives in order to enforce her own social superiority - she does so because she genuinely wants them to blossom. It takes a deft actress to walk this line between condescension and caring, but Beckinsale is a luminously confident performer, whose brightness lights up the screen as it does the Starkadders' homestead.

EDDIE

Director:Steve Rash. Starring: Whoopi Goldberg, Frank Langella (12)

Eddie is the only previously unseen film to be released this week, though it's hardly what you would call new. Whoopi Goldberg plays the title character, a basketball fan who is picked from the crowd at Madison Square Garden and chosen to be that evening's honorary coach for the Knicks. Her big mouth gets her ejected from the court, but she proves a hit with the crowd, and the team's new owner Wild Bill (Frank Langella) takes a chance and hires her to turn the Knicks' fortunes around. If you've seen Major League, Wildcats or any other sports comedy, then you won't be surprised by Eddie. Yes, there are gags about groupies. Yes, Whoopi gets to see her boys naked in the showers. And no, none of it will raise more than a charitable smile.

As the film wraps up its loose ends, it briefly becomes more pleasing. The bookish assistant musters the wherewithal to offer advice; the infidel learns how to love his wife just as she is about to divorce him; and the hotshot who has spent the film referring to himself in the third person finally thaws out. There are some diverting moments from Goldberg too, who is still busying herself perfecting that expression of befuddled exasperation, despite having yet to find a role which harnesses the charge of her stand- up routines.

The final scene, where Knicks fans protest at the proposed sale of their team, tries to be inspirational in a Dead Poets Society kind of way. The swelling music suggests that we're supposed to ache for these uncomplicated New Yorkers who just want to eat their hot dogs and do a Mexican wave every now and then. I don't know about you, but my goosebumps don't come that cheap.

SPIRAL STAIRCASE

Director:Robert Siodmak. Starring: Dorothy McGuire, Ethel Barrymore (PG)

With disabled women in danger from a wandering psychopath, the mute servant Dorothy McGuire looks like becoming the next victim, unless she can outwit her sadistic tormentor. It's no coincidence that this eerie 1945 thriller should be re-released in the same week as Vertigo - Hitchcock fans will find much to excite them in the picture's Freudian overtones and chilling Gothic-noir hybrid, while the intervening years since its production have done nothing to diminish its unsettling tone.

RETURN OF THE JEDI

Director:Richard Marquand. Starring: Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford (U)

Return of the Jedi marks the end of the Star Wars trilogy, and the point at which all the inspiration and ambition of the series disappeared into a black hole. To say that it is the weakest of the three firms would be a gross understatement; call it the nadir of the science-fiction genre and you'd be closer to the mark. It's the one where Hans Solo comes out of the deep-freeze, Jabba the Hutt is slain, Yoda has a death-bed scene straight out of Steel Magnolias, and Luke and Leia discover that they came this close to participating in a sordid Oedipal love affair.

And then there are the Ewoks, a tribe of furry mascots who have been described as teddy bears, but on closer inspection resemble something hairy and unhygienic that you might find down the back of the settee. When a pivotal set-piece can feature the mighty Empire being defeated by a pack of muppets with home-made hang-gliders, sling-shots and staffs, then you know that something has gone very wrong indeed.

VERTIGO

Director:Alfred Hitchcock. Starring:James Stewart, Kim Novak (PG)

Hitchcock's 1958 masterpiece, released this week in a restored 70mm print, is a model of suspense and emotional density. The story smacks of absurdity: an ex-cop named Scottie (James Stewart) is hired to follow the movements of Madeleine (Kim Novak), a woman who seems possessed by the spirit of a dead countess, and who soon reveals herself to be driven by suicidal impulses. Scottie falls in love with her, and after her death latches onto Judy (Novak again), a stranger who bears an uncanny resemblance to the late Madeleine. The twists in the plot are sometimes hard to swallow, but the scarred performances of Stewart and Novak give the tragic conclusion real gravity. Hitchcock had been misanthropic before, but it was only with Vertigo that he conjured a pain to match the darkness of his vision.

Ryan Gilbey

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