The company of seals

THE SECRET OF ROAN INISH John Sayles (PG) AUGUST Anthony Hopkins (PG) THE STUPIDS John Landis (PG) MY BEAUTIFUL LAUNDRETTE Stephen Frears (15)
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The Independent Culture
The Secret of Roan Inish is a film that's simply begging to be called bewitching and poignant and lyrical. It feels like it was conceived as an emotional reaction to a movie, rather than as a work in its own right - as though the writer-director-editor John Sayles decided he wanted to make a bewitching and poignant and lyrical picture before he actually knew what it would be about. Not that it isn't occasionally these things. But its self-consciousness - that is, its determination to be those things, instead of allowing them to emanate from within - works hard against your enjoyment. You're constantly being told that you should feel touched and enchanted. Inevitably, your response to The Secret of Roan Inish will depend upon how great the disparity is between those feelings and your own, and how strongly you object to being led through a film by the lapels.

Roan Inish is an abandoned island off the coast of Donegal. When the motherless 10-year-old Fiona Coneelly (Jeni Courtney) is sent by her father to stay with his parents in Donegal, the girl is intrigued by that sliver of land in the distance, and the haunting stories that feed her curiosity. She has history there. Her grandparents once lived on the island, and the rumours that her younger brother Jamie - washed out to sea in his cradle as a baby - may be frolicking around in its hills gives the place a mystical dazzle. Buoyed by stories of an ancestry peppered with "selkies" - half-women, half-seal - Fiona visits Roan Inish determined to find Jamie.

Those scenes on the island as Fiona waits for the little imp to appear are the only time Sayles allows us to trust our own emotions. It's a blast of fresh air. With Haskell Wexler's shimmering photography and a series of hallucinatory dissolves between shots that make you feel as though you're slipping in and out of sleep, Sayles finds an expressionistic style to mirror Fiona's daydreaming, and it's quite intoxicating.

But his editing and framing skills here are far superior to his writing, which is airless and unwieldy, while retaining that inchoate quality from early work such as Lianna. It's true that folk tales are consumed by their own sense of conviction, but they can still be silly, playful things, and yet there's barely a chuckle here (you might giggle just once, accidentally, when Jamie seems to be riding his cradle pedalo-style). The young actress Jeni Courtney has an infectious spirit, and her scenes with Mick Lally, who plays her grandfather, are very endearing, even if they do sometimes resemble those Seventies ads for Heinz tomato soup.

The Secret of Roan Inish isn't a bad film by any means. Sayles knows how to pace a fable (he did it before with The Brother from Another Planet). And he has a sure grasp on the digressions and flashbacks nestling within the story, making titbits of rural mythology feel exotic and tantalising, the way Neil Jordan did in The Company of Wolves. But its clunking, literal nature, from the graceless handling of minor characters to the jarring resurrection of faith in a woman whom you had pegged as a cynic, is disappointing for a director who has fashioned a career out of filming between the lines.

At least Sayles knows where to point a camera. Anthony Hopkins can't even achieve a basic visual coherency in August, a version of Chekhov's Uncle Vanya set in Wales, which marks the actor's debut as a film director. He also stars as Ieuan, the Vanya character, and he composed the fussy score as well, which is daubed all over the film, as ugly and artless as a rash of graffiti. Just like his performance really. We're used to Hopkins building toward anger by halting. His. Sentences. In odd. Places. But those mannerisms are overstated here, and his outbursts don't illuminate his character the way Chekhov intended. They're not tragic or desperate; they feel like an on-screen audition for Ray Cooney. And while the screenwriter Julian Mitchell is quite welcome to move the play to Wales, he should have stopped short of trying to convince us that Uncle Vanya was the Run For Your Wife! of its day.

The cast assembled about Hopkins's grotesque jester's routine range from the noncommittal (Gawn Grainger as the amorous doctor) to the superfluous (the lightly comic Hugh Lloyd), with only the newcomer Rhian Morgan (as Ieuan's befuddled daughter Sian) scratching the surface of her character and drawing blood. You might say that August suffers by comparison with Louis Malle's masterful Vanya an 42nd Street, but that would be missing the point. The truth is that it's so slapdash, it would suffer by comparison with Breakdance 2 - Electric Boogaloo.

Despite its title, The Stupids is not another gross-out comedy to make you bring up your dinner after Dumb and Dumber and Kingpin have helped bring up your breakfast and lunch. In fact, you quickly realise that it's closer in tone to Roger Hargreaves' Mr Men children's books, of all things.

Although the candy-coloured set design and the inane antics of the world's most stupid family (headed by Tom Arnold and Jessica Lundy) recall Pee Wee's Big Adventure, there's a plain naivety in place of that film's sexual ambiguity. It's not funny exactly - it's directed by Animal House / Blues Brothers man John Landis, so what do you expect? - but you watch it with your jaw in your lap, not least when prestigious directors such as David Cronenberg, Atom Egoyan and, strangest of all, Costa-Gavras, start turning up in cameos. Landis must know that their participation is a sure way of getting hoity-toity critics to give the movie a few extra lines. Doh! Fell for it! Now who's the stupid one?

It's good to see Stephen Frears's My Beautiful Laundrette being revived this week, in a double-bill with the recent featherweight comedy Beautiful Thing. They have gay love and the word "beautiful" in common. That's all. Frears's film, about a Pakistani entrepreneur (Gordon Warnecke) and the ex-fascist bullyboy (Daniel Day-Lewis) who becomes his partner in business and bed, was originally released in 1985, and time hasn't smoothed its ragged charms. In particular, Hanif Kureishi's writing is so potent that you're sure the screenplay must have been spat out rather than typed. He and Frears would collaborate again in 1987, on the rotten Sammy and Rosie Get Laid, a hipsters' folly. But My Beautiful Laundrette remains fresh, incisive, complex, urgent - to paraphrase a line from the movie, a jewel in the jacksy of British cinema.

n All films on general release from Friday

RYAN GILBEY

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