A mission out of control

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IT MAY be that even Americans will tire of Tom Hanks, on the grounds that you can have too much of a good, wholesome thing. But don't be surprised if they don't, and Hanks wins his third Best Actor Oscar in a row for his portrayal of the astronaut Jim Lovell in Apollo 13 (PG). He will be hard put to outdo the stratospheric sobbing and far-out philosophy of his last two acceptance speeches. No doubt this year's will tearfully acknowledge the inspiration of the man in the moon, and quaveringly affirm that it just goes to show dreams do come true if you wish upon a star.

The makers of Apollo 13 are not fools - at least not commercially - and they have exploited Hanks's current status to the hilt. A quarter of the film's $51m went to Hanks - and roughly half the movie's screen-time is devoted to him also. Hanks's Lovell gets to speak the line of the movie - "We just lost the moon" - when the 1970 lunar mission is aborted in mid-space owing to technical problems, and orates the pious, closing voice- over (the movie is based on Commander Jim Lovell's book Lost Moon). The movie turns a broken spaceship into a star vehicle. What it gets for its massive investment in Hanks is a few truly memorable moments. The opening scene is set at a party in Houston on the night of Apollo 11's 1969 moon landing. As Hanks watches Neil Armstrong walk the surface of the moon, the look on his face mingles envy, pride, respect and a cloudy foreboding.

Early on Hanks also provides the film's few hints at standing apart from the space programme's gung-hoism. Kathleen Quinlan, who as Lovell's raddled wife represents the flip-side of the lunar dream, suggests she won't be attending the launch. "Well, you're gonna miss a hell of a show," Hanks shrugs back. The good nature can't help betraying a touch of testiness, and with it a glimpse of the mission's inhuman indifference to real people. "It's not a miracle," Hanks asserts at the party, "we just decided to go." This macho arrogance, like the film's insistence on how "routine" lunar landings had become, is more of a dramatic device, a piece of hubris to spice the eventual comeuppance, than a criticism of blinkered thinking.

Watch Philip Kaufman's epic, The Right Stuff (1983), if you want a sense of the absurdity as well as the awe of the Apollo missions. Ron Howard directs Apollo 13 as The Right Stuff's comically strait-laced John Glenn might have: with a steady hand and an unswerving patriotism. He throws away some of his most interesting themes. Lovell jokes about making sure a black cat passes by the rocket; his wife appears to lose a lucky charm in the shower; the failed mission was, of course, number 13. A sharper director might have had some fun with the possibility of superstition being more powerful than technology. How much was the eventual return of Apollo 13 down to luck rather than the triumph of the American spirit touted by the film?

Howard's movie is at its best during take-off and landing. The shots of the support ladders crumbling as the rocket blasts away hammer home the strange combination - never more keenly felt than on this mission - of power and fragility in the spacecraft. Co-pilot Bill Paxton's face as the craft plummets back through the earth's atmosphere, chin wobbling along with his insides, is worth the ride by itself. Paxton and the other astronaut, Kevin Bacon, get little to do other than float - sometimes literally - in Hanks's orbit. Gary Sinise has more of a part as the astronaut who got replaced at the last moment, sternly masterminding the solution to the craft's battery-power crisis (even if, in real life, it was more of a team effort). Mission Control in general is a joy, a convention of shirt-sleeved, bespectacled nerds. They are presided over by a superb Ed Harris (Glenn in The Right Stuff), the picture of intellectual focus and command.

Just as Hanks is muttering the immortal understatement, "Houston, we have a problem", Hollywood is having one too. It may be our prior knowledge of the mission's safe outcome that saps the suspense. Or, perhaps, it is due to Howard's inability to convey much of the wonder or terror of moon-travel (the special effects are inferior to The Right Stuff's, even with the benefit of a decade's extra technology). But Apollo 13 is at its dullest when it should be most thrilling. For most of its near two- and-a-half hours duration, it's as dim and inexorable as space itself.

Christopher Hampton's directorial debut, Carrington (18), is a biopic (maybe two biopics), a social comedy, an (arguably) unrequited love story, an intellectual history - and not quite the sum of its parts. Section headings divide the film into episodes in the life of the painter, Dora Carrington (1893-1932). Each chapter explores one of the many affairs, usually awkward or aborted, that Carrington (Emma Thompson) had with the young bloods of Bloomsbury. But the centre of the movie, as of Carrington's life, is Lytton Strachey (Jonathan Pryce). "No one will ever know the utter happiness of our life together," she wrote. The film shows the happiness through a veil of misery, their love being thwarted physically by his homosexuality. Hampton is fascinated by the relationship between gender, identity and sexuality (early on we see Carrington longing to be a man so that she can fight in the First World War, even though she doesn't believe in it). Put more flippantly, Hampton asks, in the scenes detailing Carrington and Strachey's menage a trois with her other half Ralph Partridge, whether a woman can love a man who fancies her husband.

There is much to admire and enjoy in Carrington. Emma Thompson's Carrington is a poignant portrait of curtailed ebullience. She shows us a woman both cowed and defiant, wounded by the rapture Lytton reserves for young men, baffled by the passions she arouses in others, and yet sparkily resilient. Pryce's Lytton at first is too caricatured - an affectation of an affectation - but becomes auth- entically donnish and pathetically human. His nasal voice is a reedy precision instrument with which he flutes out waspish one-liners. His death scene is extraordinary. Still witticising against the dying of the light, he seems shrunken, the life drained out of him.

Feted as another off-shoot of the Bloomsbury industry, Carrington may reinforce prejudices against the movement. If you feel that Strachey administered a poison to English letters, whose bile is still being felt in British biography, this is the film for you. Pryce's peevish, self- absorbed Lytton reckons that he has "always been better at living than writing", and the film takes him on his own terms. Someone ignorant of Bloomsbury would be forgiven for not realising, after seeing the film, that the group created anything at all or was anything more than a series of chats on English lawns. Carrington's throwing away of her paintbrushes, after Lytton's death, would have been a much more powerful symbolic renunciation of art if we had been led to feel that art played much of a part in her or Lytton's lives. As it is, the magus-like Michael (The Piano) Nyman overwhelms us with a score that provides feeling that is not really in the film.

Maybe it was Christopher Hampton's aim to reduce Bloomsbury to wistful comedy, scything down its proud boasts about truth and beauty. The aesthetic of feeling and truthfulness is made to seem honourable but deluded. But there are also hints of a more forceful, engaging movie that got lost. "There are times," Strachey reveals, "when I feel like a character in a farce by Moliere." But Carrington never feels like Moliere. It's too tentative and well-mannered, and not dark, physical or funny enough.

The rest can all be recommended. The Bait (18) is a return to form for Bertrand Tavernier: a bleak Parisian thriller about a teenage girl who lures rich men for her boyfriend to beat and rob. The crimes are not the result of poverty but greed, and the film is the more shocking for its plush feel. Sam Raimi's The Quick and the Dead (15) is a sassily written (by Britain's Simon Moore) western about a fast-draw contest, with smart performances from Sharon Stone and Leonardo DiCaprio, and a stunning, if familiar, diabolic turn by Gene Hackman. A Simple Twist of Fate (PG), Steve Martin's modern version of Silas Marner, makes little of the book's symbolism, but captures the redemptive delight the adopted child brings to the miser (Martin), the feeling, as George Eliot describes it, that "she warmed him into joy because she had joy".

Cinema details: Review, page 84.