Truly, madly, badly

Mad Dogs and Englishmen is as bad as Roman Polanski's Bitter Moon. Almost. By Adam Mars-Jones
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The Independent Culture
Mad Dogs and Englishmen is a bad film, but of a particularly thrilling kind. When you think how much experience Roman Polanski needed before he could make something as spectacularly awful as Bitter Moon, it's a tribute to director Henry Cole that he has been able to put together something almost as preposterous, and much fuller of inadvertent surrealism, at his first attempt. Cole's experience is in documentaries and commercials: his images had enough assurance for it to be oddly touching, as well as funny, that he hasn't given a lot of thought to what should be behind them.

Yet Mad Dogs and Englishmen is in its way a personal film. The screenplay is by Tim Sewell, but Cole himself wrote the story on which it is based, drawing on his own experiences as "a heroin addict from a comfortable background". The thing is, though, that you can't claim the benefits of autobiography without taking the risks of autobiography, and what Cole has actually written is the story of an addicted woman (Antonia, played by Elizabeth Hurley), a daughter who feels unloved and suspects her father would have preferred a boy. Cole himself was presumably not rescued from self-destructiveness by the love of an American motorcycle courier (Mike, played by C Thomas Howell).

What we have here, then, is a little personal experience massaged into a genre piece - if only the film could decide which genre to be in. The personal is there, presumably, in the unvarying rituals of Antonia's drug- taking: the silver paper, the cigarette lighter, the inhalation through a tube. Only when Antonia follows the heroin with a deep drag on her cigarette does she allow herself a faint smile of relieved craving. Meanwhile the film around her veers between film noir, love story, gangster film and Greek tragedy, focused on the policeman (played by Joss Ackland) who sets out to punish evil but ends up destroying everything he loves.

There are daring touches in the first part of the film, clashing details that seem to argue a bizarre confidence. The ageing skinhead gangster, for instance, in the passenger seat of a speeding car, who alternates between waving drugs around and beating the man in the back (since Reservoir Dogs, profuse bleeding in the back of a car has been a sort of shorthand for extreme toughness in a thriller), is wearing the sort of red ribbon that announces Aids Awareness.

Then it begins to dawn on you that the director doesn't know anything about any of the worlds in which he sets his story, and doesn't even think that there's anything to know. When he shows Antonia's drugs gear - the tell-tale sheet of scorched silver paper - next to the teddy bear in her bedroom, in a shot that is exactly halfway between tabloid sensationalism and Hello!-style glamour-blandness, then even the theme of addiction begins to seem opportunistic rather than confessional. You may be reminded of the go-getting film executive in The Player who goes to meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous not because he has a problem but because that's where all the deals are cut these days.

Henry Cole may be from a "comfortable background", but he lacks even an elementary sense of how the luxurious life is led. Antonia lives in a beautiful flat, without domestic help, sharing the ample space only with Charlie (Paula Hamilton), a glossy Sloane with a loom of Tina Brown. Charlie keeps on saying that Antonia's father has hired her to do the place up, but of remodelling there is no sign. You would expect a first- time director handling an inexperienced actress to give her some drawings to carry and wave about as she speaks, but Cole begrudges her so much as a paint card or a swatch of fabric.

When Antonia returns to the flat after going to a party with Mike, there are lit candles everywhere, although no one is about. Yet she doesn't think, however vaguely, I wonder who broke in and lit all these pretty candles? Granted, she had been doing drugs at the party, but the director who set up the shot is clean, and needed to give a thought to something other than its visual attractiveness.

Low-life, as represented by Mike's surroundings in London, is equally fantastical. When his landlady - who also runs a pub, very school-of-Bet- Lynch with her brassy good sense and fluorescent lipstick - says to him, "You're here to study; word of advice, lay off the English birds," the film-makers seem to be strangers equally to London and to the art of plot exposition in film.

Mad Dogs rises to its true insane glory, though, when Mike takes Antonia to her father's country estate for some rest and relaxation. She's been having a bad time lately, what with being found "close to death" in the Thames, though she recovered quickly enough to leave hospital the same day. The house is a vast palace, but again there are no servants - no caretakers, even, though the master is away - and no burglar alarms. Pianos begin to tinkle on the soundtrack in a melancholy way, and the camera waxes lyrical over the greenery in the grounds. Antonia begins to reconsider her life, which means in practice that fragments of dialogue begin to replay themselves in her head, Charlie for instance asking, "Do you have any concept of what's happening to you?"

In an American film a female character so steeped in drugs and so sexily manipulative - in fact, so plain odious - would be an unlikely candidate for redemption, but it's still funny when Mike starts spouting the recovery jargon about loving yourself first, and facing your fears. Charlie turns up too, out of the blue, and says, "I'll see you for dinner," though nobody gives a thought to shopping or cooking.

Instead, Mike whizzes down to London and beards Antonia's dad in his club, though his wholesome knees, showing through torn jeans, send the dress codes of St James's into paroxysms: "Maybe if you would talk to her," he suggests, "and admit that you love her, she might stand a chance."

This sort of thing is of course just what upper-class men go to their clubs to avoid, but Dad gives it a whirl anyway. The scenes of reconciliation and family healing between Antonia ("You're always in the City, doing deals") and her Dad ("I'm not very good at showing love") are classics of their kind. When the police call by also, to offer Antonia their protection, her father is suddenly so New Man as to take the servant problem into his own hands: "I'll show you to your room, Sergeant," says this reformed toff, "Will you come this way, please?" If Henry Cole had had the courage to show him making up the bed with his own fair hands, he could lay some claim to being the Bunuel of British upper-class manners.

Most people who go to see Mad Dogs and Englishmen will do so to find out if Elizabeth Hurley has any talent beyond a talent for being in the papers. This isn't fair to her (as anyone who saw Christabel on television can testify), though it is true that she and Hugh Grant are beginning to share some mannerisms - mannerisms of rueful charm, ways of saying "Oh shit" or "I'm sorry". But then film should really appeal to connoisseurs of the preposterous, for delirious moments like Joss Ackland inquiring about Antonia's whereabouts from a tweedy junkie in yet another sumptuous interior, all wood panels and equestrian paintings, with the words, "You're from the same manor" - "manor" stranded halfway between its two usual senses, of inherited estate and gangland territory.