She's just an old-fashioned girl

Victorian is out; Regency is in. Sheila Johnston on Princess Caraboo an d this week's other new releases
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The Independent Culture
Princess Caraboo (PG)

Director: Michael Austin (UK)

Chasing the Deer (PG)

Director: Graham Holloway (UK)

Only the Strong (15)

Director: Sheldon Lettich (US)

The Nutcracker (U)

Director: Emile Ardolino (US)

History spins in cycles: the Edwardians and late Victorians have had their way with British cinema for a good run, but perhaps that run is over now that the Merchant-Ivory team, which made so many films set then, has decamped to Paris. Certainly, the Regency era is about to enter fashion: watch out next year for The Madness of King George and Emma Thompson's adaptation of Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility. And it's also the backdrop to Princess Caraboo, a true story - the producers say - set in 1817,in a Little England cut off from the Continent (or should that be the other way round?) by the Napoleonic Wars, and turned insular and xenophobic. Foreigners had better not be French, and if you're Irish, you'll be like as not clapped in chains for vagrancy.

But orientalism is in vogue, and when an exotic beauty (Phoebe Cates) fetches up in the heart of the West Country claiming to be an abducted Eastern princess, all of high society collapses swiftly at her feet. Mrs Worrall (Wendy Hughes), the kindly womanwho takes the fugitive under her wing, trades her poke bonnets for turbans; oversize brooches and earrings sprout luxuriantly, and a surprisingly svelte Prince Regent (John Sessions) declares the only worthy home for the Princess is the Pavilion he's constructing in Brighton.

There's rich meat here for some Janeite barbs at the expense of fools like Mrs Worrall's parvenu husband (Jim Broadbent, who sees the princess as a means of social climbing. But the director is Michael Austin, who might be Jane's near namesake but has anuncertain way with comedy (his only previous film is the dire Killing Dad). Princess Caraboo is handsome, likeable and well-performed by all parties. Cates comes across as elegant and credible (at least until the last 10 minutes); the cast als o includes Stephen Rea, John Lithgow and Kevin Kline, uncharacteristically restrained as the Worralls' supercilious Greek butler. It never quite achieves the desired tone of high-spirited social farce, but is still commended as one of the few decent new grown-up films around.

Chasing the Deer hops back to 1745, the year Bonnie Prince Charlie led the remnants of his rebel Scots army to the slaughter of Culloden. The Deer Hunter it isn't, for all that the title and the theme (a nation's war- trauma) rashly invite the comparison. It's a historical epic shot on a shoestring, the finance raised partly from investors cast as extras in reward for their cash. The film is thus well-stocked with rhubarbing background characters (the battle scene even looks better-populated than Agincourt in Kenneth Branagh's Henry V), and one imagines a sliding scale of prominence, a small stake buying a place in a mob of heckling peasants, a more generous one the chance to die on camera. And the peg-legged beggar rattling his can: how much, one wonders, did he chip in?

Against expectation, Chasing the Deer doesn't pound down the obvious route: there's no easy tartan sentimentalising over the Jacobite cause, while the English Redcoats are allowed their measure of sympathy; it takes a complex view of events which have become encrusted with myth. There were some early laughs, albeit unintentional, at the occasionally corny script ("The game's up!") and some uneven performances, but one could sense the scorn thawing out as the story progressed, and a growing measure of respect for this ambitious little film kitted out with minimal resources.

Sheldon Lettich, an auteur who has hitherto escaped my attention, served in Vietnam as an enlisted Marine. His previous writing credits feature a string of action flicks (Rambo III, Delta Force 2, etc); as director he has worked regularly with Jean-Claude van Damme, a kindred spirit. Now he presents Only the Strong, a cheesy straight-to-video number about an ex-Green Beret who brings hope to Miami's inner city kids by teaching them capoeira, the Brazilian martial art. As usual, the film shows sport as ashort cut out of the ghetto (heaven forbid that this should involve reading the occasional book).

Our hero quickly bumps up against the neighbourhood's heavy mob, sinister individuals from Brazil and Jamaica (notice how often this sort of film fields West Indians as the bad guys; so much safer than facing the wrath of vocal African-American pressure groups). It's strictly formula stuff. There are some impressive male torsos on display (but why can't the girls sometimes get to play, too?). The title refers to the film's Darwinian / Nietzschean text that only the fittest will survive. I thoug ht ubermenschen had become extinct circa 1989.

George Balanchine's The Nutcracker turns on a curious piece of casting: hard to imagine that the little toughs who enjoyed Macaulay Culkin thrashing the living daylights out of Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern in Home Alone will also thrill to him togged out in a poncey blow-wave and pink knee-breeches as the Nutcracker Prince; hard, too, to conceive that he will interest the baby ballerinas who might go along for the dance.

The production was originally staged for the New York Ballet in 1954 and it shows; this is old-fashioned, cod-Victorian, massively ornate, in short, as camp as Christmas. The director lobs in the odd Culkin close-up - perhaps the primadonna brat had it written into his contract (his dancing, by the way, is execrable), but the film is mostly dully shot with a camera that stays plonked in the middle of the front row of the stalls, venturing now and then into the middle of the front row of the dress circle. For a wonderful ballet film that grabs you by the throat and pulls you into the dance, check Michael Powell's delirious version of another E T A Hoffman story, The Red Shoes.

n All films open tomorrow

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