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Seven Oscar nominations, not much bite

THE NARRATIVE cog which sets The Shawshank Redemption (15) in motion has an uninvited tang of topicality: Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) is a respectable middle-class cuckold charged with the murder of his wife and her lover. There's no blood-stained glove, just a handful of bullets which sing of his guilt. He gets two life sentences at Shawshank State Prison, Maine.

We're told that it's the state's toughest penitentiary. There's a guard (Clancy Brown) who looks like a hammerhead shark. The Warden (Bob Gunton), with his too-tight skin and reptile's eyes, believes in "discipline and the Bible"; a tiny gold crucifix flashes on his lapel. A new inmate is battered to death, though he's an obese, snivelling mummy's boy, which tells you he had it coming. Robbins survives initiation and latches on to fellow lifer Red (Morgan Freeman), who calls him "that tall drink of water with a silver spoon up his ass".

Their friendship is founded on the unspoken trust that film-makers adore because it demands only a narrowing of the eyes or a jolly "heh heh heh". Robbins fumes silently, his captivating stillness belying the network of ingenious activity lighting up inside him. Freeman is the movie's pivot - like the chief in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest - and he embodies its spirit. His crumpled skin is leathery as a baseball glove, but his heart and voice are caramel-soft. Director Frank Darabont, who adapted the film from Stephen King's Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, saw that Freeman could carry the script's more asinine and maudlin excesses - though the line "Some birds aren't meant to be caged, their feathers are just too bright" is a bit much to ask of any actor.

While the film busies itself with exposition and anecdote, it chugs along sweetly. The Big Important Themes prove more troublesome. King's story carried the same sticky message of hope and survival but the prose was tempered with a coarseness that Darabont has buffed to a sheen. King wrote about prison screenings of Deep Throat. Darabont wouldn't dare put Freeman in the same frame as pornography - he thinks it would scandalise us. He - or the studio - has also expunged King's (already brief) summary of homosexuality in the slammer, which at least acknow-ledged that violence isn't its sole manifestation. The only gay characters in the film are rapists.

Roger Deakins's startling photography provides a cruelty absent from the story by establishing the prison as a malevolent entity which absorbs inmates into its cadaver-blue brickwork (think of The Shining or The Cement Garden). It's a curious example of the prison drama, though. It doesn't want to make you suffer, it just wants to please you. A tale of the human spirit negotiating brutality, deprivation and moral bankruptcy may sound like a Friday night in Bethnal Green but you'd be surprised: the film leaves you on a laudanum high. To buy into the coda's paradisiacal whitewash, however, you'll have to believe in Santa Claus, the National Lottery and the Juice's innocence.

The Shawshank Redemption has won seven Oscar nominations to Forrest Gump's 13. That sounds about right: just over half the film is sweetened with Gumpness - you need a spoonful of medicine to help its sugar go down.

The eyes of God look on during a crucial moment in Shekhar Kapur's Bandit Queen (18), as Indian outlaw-cum-heroine Phoolan Devi (the volatile Seema Biswas) initiates the spilling of Hindu blood during a massacre in Behmai. The scene is so vigorously staged and edited, you suspect that the Almighty is cheering, "Go on, sunshine, get stuck in!"

Aged 11, Phoolan (Sunita Bhatt) is called home from playing in the river. She is to be married off. As her village of Gorha Ka Purwa shrinks away on the shore, Phoolan already has the expression of a woman ground into bitterness by marriage, her face squashed into her palm in resignation, her eyes hateful. Soon, her husband will rape her. When, years later, she binds him to a tree and beats the life out of him with mighty, mechanical blows of her rifle butt, Kapur reminds us of her nuptial torture with the briefest of flashbacks. It's a cheap move: you feel someone's taking you for a fool.

Phoolan's life is picked over in a sparse, economical manner. When the images are poetic, it's poetry of a distinctly hoarse, abrasive order; the film might have been shot through an inch of dust. Yet for a story so steeped in Indian folklore and politics, it's curious that Kapur has given it a Western flavour. Mala Sen's screenplay feels hurried and itinerant - it lurches from one atrocity to the next, smudging everything in between.

And it has a shopping-list structure: first Phoolan was raped in an arranged marriage, then raped by bandits, then she became a bandit, then she got raped by high-castes, then she got revenge, then she surrendered. The visual nods to Mad Max are telling - the level of analysis functions on roughly the same level.

You get no sense of Phoolan as the cultural icon that she is; nor of the tremendous surge of low-caste support she won; nor of her progression from hostage of a dacoit gang to its leader; nor of the potentially complex relationships with her father or her lover Vikram. But you do catch yourself thinking, "Go on, sunshine, get stuck in!"

A postscript: three weeks ago, after threatening self-immolation if Bandit Queen were released in India, Phoolan Devi saw the film which she thought might jeopard-ise her political aspirations. She may now withdraw her objections.

Of the scrappy new half-term releases, only the elegant Black Beauty (U) is worthy of your children. Adapted and directed by Caroline Thompson, the pen behind Edward Scissorhands and The Secret Garden, it's locked into a child's perspective - Alan Cummings' gentle Scottish lilt lends a voice to the eponymous horse, and his words have the ebbing rhythm and idiom of a bedtime story. Human roles are shaved bare - David Thewlis gets the thickest batch of lines, and the film's sweetest moment too, when Beauty steals his doorstep sandwich, gambols about with it victoriously, then showers him in a confetti of crumbs.

The new film of Kipling's The Jungle Book (PG) is not animated, in either sense of the word. It's an inventory of misjudgements - the bulk of it too sluggish for youngsters, the climax too traumatic. The early, wordless scenes have a pleasing fruity texture, though it's left to Basil Poledouris's cumbersome score to do the talking (it's like having Jimmy Edwards bark in your ear). Jason Scott Lee is Mowgli, though with his ceaseless fidgeting and bulging eyeballs he looks less like a nimble waif on the threshold of experience than a speed freak.

Big softies like nothing more than hearing old folk talk dirty. Camilla (PG) is nothing more. In her final role, Jessica Tandy sets off with Bridget Fonda on an emotionally enriching adventure where you expect passport control to ask, "Business, pleasure or bonding, ma'am?" It was plainly conceived as Thelma and Louise at the Whistle-Stop Caf, but feels more like Attack of the Fried Green Tomatoes.

Cinema times: Review, page 66. Quentin Curtis returns next week.