They wouldn't let it lie

Sleepers Barry Levinson (15) Shine Scott Hicks (12)
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The Independent Culture
At the beginning of Sleepers, four New York teenagers go to hell for a hot-dog cart. Stealing a vendor's trolley in a misguided prank, Lorenzo, Michael, John and Tommy accidentally injure a passer-by and are sent to a reform school that makes the borstal of Scum look like Butlins. Imposing music crowds the soundtrack; the camera examines its subjects through railings and wire grilles; doors clang shut, Porridge-style. At this point in the film, more perceptive audiences will have discerned that imprisonment is A Bad Thing.

But no matter how grim it gets, the movie's supply of humiliations and indignities never runs dry. Most of them are dealt out by the guard Nokes, who is the picture's Freddy Krueger in all but the stripy jersey. He's the ringleader of a bunch of screws who rape and beat the four new inmates. As played by Kevin Bacon, who curls his lip like Joan Crawford and twirls his baton in imitation of Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange, Nokes is so overladen with camp embellishments that you're startled when the film lurches on two decades and finds him as a gnarled nobody, sinister in his mundanity. Two of the boys he abused, now adults, recognise him and decide it's eye-for-an-eye time.

Their act of revenge echoes Michael Corleone's inaugural killing in The Godfather. But there, violence was vampiric: it drew Michael into a world that he had denounced. In Sleepers, the blast from a gun is purgative. Victim support groups may have something to say about the film's assertion, in the final court-room scenes, that you can put abuse behind you with the help of a dynamite lawyer (Brad Pitt), mob influence (Vittorio Gassman) and a priest (Robert De Niro) who's prepared to commit perjury. And what if you don't have access to any of the above? What then?

But perhaps we shouldn't confuse Sleepers with real life. Lorenzo Carcaterra, the author of the supposedly autobiographical novel, certainly hasn't, if recent reports are to be believed. It's not the facts, or lack of them, which jar so much as the film's extremes of tone, careering between honeyed idealism and vicious sadism. The director Barry Levinson gave good nostalgia in Diner and Tin Men, and almost half of Sleepers is a period piece (Sixties New York replaces Levinson's native Baltimore) laced with an unsophisticated sense of longing. Life is a Beach Boys song. You're never more than five minutes away from a jape in church, or a jump in the Hudson. And don't mention fire hydrants - you'd think the damn things had been invented just so that film-makers of limited imagination could show children frolicking in the spray to signal carefree innocence.

The sentimentality is complicated by a portentous voiceover, with the adult Lorenzo (Jason Patric) viewing his youth through the horrors that would later visit him - so his reminiscences are both intoxicatingly sweet and dense with foreboding. Sleepers opens with a slow-motion sequence of the boys larking around, their laughter a distant echo. And as any horror movie aficionado will tell you, slow-motion shots of children at play means trouble. It doesn't get any deeper than that.

Why should it? Levinson is setting up his young naifs as sacrificial lambs; he doesn't want us to feel their pain, he just requires us to be appalled by their ordeal. And who isn't appalled by child abuse? He's on to a winner and he knows it. But he can't stop there. He has to ask: will the systematic rape of four boys be shocking enough to stir an audience's blood-lust? Or do we need distorted sound effects? Or flashbacks styled, with dubious intent, after Un Chant d'Amour? Do we need Lorenzo telling us after the assault: "It was my 14th birthday - and the end of my childhood"? About as much as we need an intertitle assuring us that Molesting Children Is A Bad Thing Too.

According to a little-known by-law, it is within our civil liberties to hang, draw and quarter the director of any film that openly declares itself to be about the triumph of the human spirit. But may I plead clemency in the case of Scott Hicks, whose film Shine is far more than the sum of your goosebumps. It concerns freedom - the emancipation of an Australian pianist named David Helfgott, whose savage talent was smothered by his tyrannical father, Peter (Armin Mueller-Stahl), for whom paternal love equalled absolute power.

Both actors who play David - Noah Taylor in the early parts, Geoffrey Rush later on - have a quizzical face like a permanent question mark. That's appropriate. David seems to be constantly searching, grabbing at something, first with his playing, where his fingers blur over the keys; and then later, after a nervous breakdown, with his mind, which fires queries and riddles and word-association games faster than his tongue can process them. Peter forces David to tackle Rachmaninov's Third at an early age, and David's speech patterns seem to adopt that concerto's frantic, unrelenting rhythms. When David plays it in concert, Hicks cuts between two opposing shots of the feral pianist, and it appears that the music has cleaved the boy in two.

Some of the film's ideas seem to be tailored for an audience banished by the "12" certificate - the insistence that while David works at winning tournaments, he is trapped by music, and can only be freed when he begins playing solely for pleasure. But Hicks redeems these banalities with succinct methods of expression - like lingering over David's reflection in his piano as he toils, to suggest that he's physically imprisoned inside the very wood of his instrument. Hicks knows how to balance a film, too. Whereas Sleepers punishes us even as it leads its victims out of their pain, Shine juggles light with dark, so that a harrowing scene in which Peter burns David's scrapbooks is immediately followed by a comic shot of the boy flailing around on the steps of the Royal Albert Hall, trying to save his college notes from being stolen by the wind.

And the film isn't pompous about David. It allows him his snatches of foolishness. His transformation into a wine-bar piano wizard could play like a freakshow if the movie didn't admit that David is complicit in his own life. That's what freedom meansn

`Shine' and `Sleepers' open tomorrow