ORSON WELLES was 26 when he made Citizen Kane, and he was never on the dole in Nottinghamshire. Shane Meadows, the young director of TwentyFourSeven (15) is 25, and began writing, directing and producing video shorts four years ago, using borrowed equipment, and videotape bought with the remains of his Income Support. This week, his first feature premieres in Nottingham and London. Now that's what I call Welfare to Work.

The joy of TwentyFourSeven comes from the ease with which it breathes fresh life into a well-worn plot. It's that old chestnut about the kind- hearted guy who tries to knock some self-respect back into a bunch of disaffected young men by teaching them a sport. Pat O'Brien tried it in Angels With Dirty Faces; Daniel Day-Lewis did something similar in The Boxer. And in Meadows's film, Bob Hoskins plays Darcy, a boxing coach who polishes up the self-image of a gang of unemployed lads by training them in the rudiments of the ring.

If you've seen the other versions of the story, you know it's going to end in failure. This isn't the cartoonish world of The Full Monty, in which the drudgery of unemployment can mysteriously evaporate in the course of one trouserless whoop-up. Meadows provides no happy ending: there's no freeze-frame finale to preserve the dignity of these men. And for once, this is a British film that doesn't look like a TV play blown up for the big screen. Meadows and his cinematographer, Ashley Rowe, have captured these characters in a grainy monochrome that's as coarse and colourless as the pebble-dash on their housing development.

Despite its verve and technical accomplishment, however, TwentyFourSeven is very much a rough diamond of a film. The script has a fine ear for filthy banter, but there's the occasional clunky, preachy line ("Money was God, money is God," warns Hoskins, in a portentous voice-over) and the odd pointless restatement of what we can see on the screen: "Dancing with my Auntie Iris gives me the quilt to hide my loneliness," explains Darcy, puncturing a beautiful scene in which, as he and Iris (Pamela Cundell) whirl around to "The Blue Danube", this pleasure much is obvious.

But Meadows's debut is an important one. He's managed to put the lives of ordinary people upon the cinema screen without patronising or sentimentalising his subject. Though some of these characters are comic eccentrics, Meadows's instinct for realism checks any silly exaggeration. If Ronnie (Frank Harper), the thick-eared spiv who sponsors the boxing club, had been in a Mike Leigh film, he might have become a caricature. Under Meadows, he's completely plausible, a loudmouthed wideboy who can convey a tender interest in his son, Tonka (James Corden), even as he takes the piss out of him. "It's his nickname because he's fat," he explains; but he wants Darcy to help his boy lose weight and gain confidence. Once Ronnie has gone, Tonka turns to Darcy and says, "Me real name's Karl." It's a lovely moment in a film that's full of belting authenticity. Do see it, if only to be in at the beginning of a brilliant career.

Feature-length cartoons and economic imperialism have always gone hand in hand. Disney has been pushing its credo of sentimental conservatism for 70 years, and now Fox, its commercial rival, is trying to break the Mickey Mouse monopoly by launching its own feature-length animations, following the same ideological tack. In Anastasia (U), the former Mouse House animator Don Bluth has done a pink-tinged makeover on the Romanovs, turning them into an all-singing, all-dancing troupe of domestic-blissers - like the Von Trapps, but with the power to execute people. "Despite their role as imperial rulers of Russia," breezes the press release, "Nicholas and Alexandra preferred spending as much time as possible with their children." This, I think, has a touch of "Springtime for Hitler" about it.

Anastasia is voiced by Meg Ryan as a distinctly down-to-earth aristocrat, which helps to amplify this folksy impression of feudalism's first family. In fact, if she weren't a drawing, she'd probably be demonstrating hairdryers somewhere. She flicks her bangs, she sings about family values to saucer- eyed Siberian squirrels, and she's terrorised by the monstrous Rasputin (in this interpretation, more demon king than Russia's greatest love machine, and assisted - inexplicably - by an albino Jewish bat). But most importantly, Anastasia struggles to overcome her post-traumatic amnesia and prove her identity as a real royal princess (the recovery of repressed memories being much more acceptable to today's kids than that hoary old pea-in-the-bed trick).

Apart from creating work for history teachers - who will have to spend some time correcting this version of events - Anastasia also provides its audience with a handful of forgettable Broadway-bland ballads. Avoid, unless you are Vladimir Zhirinovsky and your kids are at a loose end.

For grown-ups, there's Andre Techine's Les Voleurs (18), a chilly emotional melodrama focused on a bisexual love triangle between a detective, a shoplifter and a philosophy professor. Only the French - or the producers of Brookside, perhaps - could get away with it. It's a character piece, and the casting is spot on: as ice-cold Alex, a cop, Daniel Auteuil's blank brown eyes has a convincing air of emotional illiteracy.

Catherine Deneuve glows with frosty radiance as the middle-aged academic, Marie. (And yes, she's as beautiful as ever). And as the young thief they both fall for, Laurence Cote occupies the apex of this triangular affair, and therefore has the most work to do. With Auteuil she is clinical and detached: they have sex without making eye-contact. With Deneuve, she's eager to learn, although she keeps her thoughts to herself. But despite the eloquent performances, this is a stiff-backed, brittle film: an exploration of reticence that's a bit too stand-offish for its own good.

At the other end of the sophistication scale, Best Men (15) fuses those two overworked genres, the heist-gone-wrong thriller and the wedding comedy. On their way to the nuptials, a gang of twentysomething schoolfriends become inadvertently involved in a bank job. It speedily becomes a hostage crisis, thus allowing each character to trot out his back-story. For instance, Dean Cain (best known for his peculiar underwear in The New Adventures of Superman) is a Green Beret who was given a dishonourable discharge for being gay. But hey, Tamra Davis's film seems to say, that's cool as long as you've a red-blooded obsession with firearms. And when Cain's co-star, Sean Patrick Flanery (imagine a disastrous genetic experiment involving Richard Madeley, Michael J Fox and George Hamilton) starts to recite soliloquies from Hamlet, you may feel in need of a revolver yourself.

If you want distinguished trash, try Jean Claude Van Damme. His films are consistently absurd, but I feel sure they are exactly as he intended them to be. For Double Team (18), Tsui Hark nominally occupies the director's chair, but Van Damme is the project's true auteur. Like the rest of his work, it seems designed to be watched at 2am on a long-haul bus trip. The title is meaningless, there's a jockful of homoerotic camp, and the plot defies summary. The finale, set in a landmine-strewn Coliseum, sees Jean-Claude kickboxing with a man-eating tiger and an international terrorist (Mickey Rourke), in order to save the life of his one-day old baby, lying between them in a Moses basket. I was mesmerised. The man's a genius.

Cinema details: Going Out, page 11.

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