THE CRITICS: CINEMA: ALSO SHOWING

An Ideal Husband (PG) Oliver Parker; 95 mins Return to Paradise (15) Joseph Ruben; 111 mins Prometheus (15) Tony Harrison; 129 mins Actresses (12) Ventura Pons; 95 mins
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The Independent Culture
Oscar Wilde wrote An Ideal Husband in 1894. It was a muddled year. At first he rented a cottage in Goring-on-Thames, but his lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, was so maniacal in his tennis-playing and sulks and sunbathing that Wilde was forced to take rooms in St James's Place to get it finished. Wilde forgave Bosie (only letting rip in De Profundis) and the play is as much a lesson in how we must modify our judgements of each other as it is about anything else.

In the film, Lord Goring (Rupert Everett), a bachelor aristocrat, lives to lounge and quip and look fantastic. He is friends with Sir Chiltern (Jeremy Northam), a rising politician, and his principled wife (Cate Blanchett). Enter Mrs Cheveley, a scheming widow (Julianne Moore), who has in her possession a letter that might destroy Chiltern's reputation. She strikes a cruel bargain. Chiltern is flummoxed. Goring decides to help, and in the meantime comes to terms with feeling something for Chiltern's sister (an over-thrusting Minnie Driver).

An Ideal Husband is the only play of Wilde's in which a man's profession is central to the action - it absolutely inhabits the world of work. Chiltern must not only be an ideal husband, but an ideal politician, and must be both to be either.

Director Oliver Parker is right to take Wilde out of the drawing room - we hang around in the gloom outside the Commons, we spy on debates, we visit him in his ridiculously generous office. He also rarely sacrifices any optimism or sweetness in the play to its menu of cracking gags ("I'm so full of exciting information, I feel like the latest edition of something or other.")

That said, there is something stodgy about this film. It has no darkness, despite all its notions of ambition and disgrace and suspicion. Parker wants us to like everybody, even Mrs Cheveley, whom Wilde punished for being so horrible by cutting her out of the third act altogether. Worse, he wants us to like Phipps, Goring's butler (Peter Vaughan), a small but salient character whose practised impassivity represented Wilde's grasp on the Victorian dominance of form. But Everett is winningly on top of his performance as the narrative's guide and philosopher, and, as usual, acts like someone without envy in his heart.

Return to Paradise is a remake of the 1990 French film Force Majeure, and is based on a true story. Three American college graduates (played by Vince Vaughn, David Conrad and Joaquin Phoenix) meet on a trip around Malaysia. They drink, have sex with local prostitutes, and smoke plenty of cheap hash, observing their Third World surroundings with adolescent diffidence. Eventually, Conrad and Vaughn head for New York, leaving the gentle Phoenix behind them with the remains of the drugs they shared. Two years later, Vaughn is approached by a young woman (Anne Heche) claiming to be Phoenix's lawyer. She tells him that hours after he and Conrad left, their hut was searched by local police. The drugs were found, and Phoenix has spent his time since then in a Malaysian prison. Worse, he is sentenced to hang in a week's time, unless Conrad and Vaughn return to Malaysia and accept their share of the punishment.

The script was originally written by Bruce Robinson (Withnail and I) but, as is the way of Hollywood things, soon got a glib going-over by someone else, in this case Wesley Strick (Scorsese's Cape Fear). The result is a patchy-yet-murky, ironic piece of work. It's absorbing enough when Vaughn persists in claiming he hasn't the morals to return and see out a three-year sentence, but it's certainly Phoenix who triumphs.

Phoenix is a fine actor who only seems to work occasionally on films he really likes (he was the smitten youth in To Die For). He has relatively little time on screen, but is extraordinary when decoding the gratitude, the awful incredulity and joy his character feels when the others return to help him. Every sound he makes is a shock to us, his sobs high and sketchy like an engine in trouble. In these moments, I was reminded of Christopher J Koch's The Year of Living Dangerously, and Koch's young protagonist's Asian experience: his "childhood's opposite intensities; the gimcrack and the queer mixed with the grim; laughter and misery; carnal nakedness and threadbare nakedness; fear and toys".

The English poet and playwright Tony Harrison's first feature film- poem Prometheus is based on the Greek myth of how the Titan stole fire from Zeus to give to mankind. Over two hours Harrison shows, largely in rhyme, how we have used fire - the cigarette, the bomb, the Holocaust ovens - to despoil, and ultimately insists we unify in the face of technology. Harrison's film is more irritating than anything I've seen in a long time. There's such self-consciousness, such pompous carping. It's nothing but a surreal self-improvement exercise.

Prometheus is visually turgid - the camera panning across great European dumps, the eye drawn to nothing in particular, the ear battered by the only occasionally sturdy verse ("Birds of a barmy feather/ Thee and me.") It also doesn't help that the narrator, Hermes (Michael Feast), is dressed in a silver jumpsuit which keeps crackling all the time, like someone quietly opening their sandwiches on the back of the bus.

Ventura Pons's Actresses has three grandes dames of Catalan theatre reminiscing about their tutelage under the late actress Empar Rebira. The drama rests on the three actresses' differing recollections of Rebira - perhaps a lesbian, perhaps a bitch, perhaps a genius. Visually lumpen and more than a little precious, it's a disappointingly charmless piece of work.

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