Seven Oscar nominations, not much bite

Cinema

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.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Shades of glory: Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend

Glastonbury Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend will perform with Paul Weller as their warm-up act

Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen (Kristin Scott Thomas) in The Audience
theatreReview: Stephen Daldry's direction is crisp in perfectly-timed revival
Arts and Entertainment

Will Poulter will play the shape-shifting monsterfilm
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

    'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

    In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
    VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

    How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

    Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
    They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

    Typefaces still matter in the digital age

    A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
    Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

    'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

    New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
    The Pan Am Experience is a 'flight' back to the 1970s that never takes off - at least, not literally

    Pan Am Experience: A 'flight' back to the 70s

    Tim Walker checks in and checks out a four-hour journey with a difference
    Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics - it's everywhere in the animal world

    Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics

    Voting, mutual back-scratching, coups and charismatic leaders - it's everywhere in the animal world
    Crisp sales are in decline - but this tasty trivia might tempt back the turncoats

    Crisp sales are in decline

    As a nation we're filling up on popcorn and pitta chips and forsaking their potato-based predecessors
    Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

    Ronald McDonald the muse

    A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
    13 best picnic blankets

    13 best picnic blankets

    Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
    Barcelona 3 Bayern Munich 0 player ratings: Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?

    Barcelona vs Bayern Munich player ratings

    Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?
    Martin Guptill: Explosive New Zealand batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

    Explosive batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

    Martin Guptill has smashed early runs for Derbyshire and tells Richard Edwards to expect more from the 'freakish' Brendon McCullum and his buoyant team during their tour of England
    General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
    General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

    On the margins

    From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
    Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

    'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

    Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
    Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

    Why patients must rely less on doctors

    Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'