Cinema: The thief, his wife and her sister

JOHN BOORMAN has always been a myth-maker, a teller of tall tales. For instance, that business in Excalibur with the Lady in the Lake - did it actually happen? Well, no, but hard-nosed realists don't do sword sorcery. What about those sunlit reminiscences in Hope and Glory? Was that yarn about the fish and the German air-raid based on fact? I wouldn't bet on it. The mythic seems to haunt Boorman's production schedule, too. It was rumoured that some diabolic influence was behind the strange near- fatal illness that struck him down on the set of The Exorcist II. Poppycock, probably. But it's a fantastic story. And why bother with anaemic reportage, his films suggest, when you can have full-blooded folklore instead?

His new movie, The General (15), offers romantic drama, alive to the occult processes by which individuals become legends. Shot in grand widescreen black-and-white, it's a biopic of Dublin anti-hero Martin Cahill, an audacious, violent crook who pulled off a series of daring robberies in the 1980s and early 1990s before being assassinated by an IRA hitman. Played with an intoxicating mixture of bravado, brutality and good humour by Brendan Gleeson, Cahill is celebrated for his criminal genius and anti-establishment bent. But for every burst of cheeky chappiness, there's a scene of apoplectic paranoia. Even when he's at his most charmingly roguish, Gleeson's Cahill is still a foul-mouthed slob with a sweaty streak of malignity, a man capable of crucifying an associate on a snooker table, and then apologising to him when he realises the punishment was undeserved.

And Boorman makes Cahill's progress towards legendary status the subject as well as the objective of his movie. He gives us his hero gleefully watching himself on television, revelling in his public notoriety. We see Cahill reprimand a fellow crook for hugging him like some movie mafioso ("We're not fucking Eye-Talians," he barks). Out on the street, he's a timid creature, hiding his face under a spread of stubby fingers, digging himself into his baggy anorak, even making a court appearance in a Groucho Marx disguise in order to avoid recognition. Characters this complex are few and far between.

In one remarkable scene, Boorman shows us Gleeson tiptoeing around a middle-class household at midnight, swag-bagging a child's toy train like some sinister Anti-Santa. He ducks for cover as the father of the household appears on the landing, and watches as he slips into a room occupied by another woman. Is this the au pair? His sister-in-law? We're not told. Then Cahill steals into the marital bedroom and gazes down at the sleeping woman who doesn't know she's being deceived, as if to commiserate with her. He reaches down and touches her hand. Is he going to wake her and tell her? No, he's just nicking her gold bracelet. And you kick yourself for believing that he might have had an altruistic impulse. After all, in the previous scene, Boorman has shown him attempting to filch the daughter's Big Yellow Teapot. And he only gives up because it's too bulky to fit in his holdall.

By adding to the mythology surrounding a figure from such recent criminal history, Boorman is probably guilty of some impropriety. This material is more raw and sensitive than Arthurian love. As you sit there watching Cahill drive six-inch nails into a hapless victim, you can't help wondering what the families of those portrayed must think of such a scene. There are puzzling blanks in the story, too. We're asked to believe that Cahill lived in an amicable menage a trois with his wife and sister-in-law, but this relationship is never explored in any detail. However, as this is a kind of folklore, it probably shouldn't be judged as if it were reliable reportage: Morgan Le Fay might have been framed, and I suspect the Germans never bombed the fish. For all I know, Boorman's film might not contain a scrap of veracity. But as a fireside story, it is irresistible.

Alan Rudolph's Afterglow (15) baffled me completely. It stars Nick Nolte as a highly sexed handyman who seduces married women, and Julie Christie as his unhappy wife Phyllis, a faded B-movie actress. I couldn't decide whether Rudolph was taking a sly look at Nineties sexual mores, or remaking Confessions of a Plumber's Mate for pseudo-intellectuals.

Certainly, if Robin Askwith with Joan Sims had been cast in the lead roles, they would have recognised much of the script, which positively bulges with feeble sexual innuendo. For instance, we first see Nolte lying on his back under a U-bend, a monster wrench lodged between his legs, exhorting a negligee-clad housewife to "make him wet". Scenes like that are usually punctuated with musical stings on the Swanee whistle, but Rudolph prefers to charge them with a strange, enraptured irony. The reasoning behind this quite escaped me. No matter how arch you are about it, dodgy double entendre is still dodgy double entendre.

Then there's the names of the characters. Nolte's randy handyman is called "Lucky Mann". Is this really any more subtle than the Dr Nookys and Gladstone Screwers of the Carry On films? And if you're not distracted by two unfortunate guest appearances from the boom mike, there are other basic problems of credibility to chew over. With his harvest-blond waves and wrinkly complexion, Nolte looks less a suburban sex god, more a prize shih-tzu emerging from a bowl of congealed Ready Brek. So it's rather hard to believe that he's managed to bag a bird like Christie's glamorous Phyllis - let alone that he'd be stupid enough to be unfaithful to her. With the help of generous soft focus, Christie is as luminous as ever. But even she seems unable to negotiate the perplexing silliness of the script. Afterglow might be a hyper sophisticated ironic joke that went over my head. Or it could be the most elaborately ludicrous film of the year. My money's on the latter. Or both.

Alex Proyas's Dark City (15) poses no such interpretative problems. A sci-fi noir that's basically Doctor Who with knobs on, it stars Rufus Sewell as the only man who knows that his home is in the grip of an alien conspiracy. At midnight, his fellow citizens fall mysteriously asleep, and the streets are stalked by British character actors made up as Klaus Kinski. It doesn't make much sense, but the big set-pieces are potent, the Gothicism is satisfyingly sanguine, and the sight of a rubber-suited Ian Richardson clicking like a cicada is pure delight. That Proyas has been signed to direct a remake of Quatermass and the Pit is the best news I've heard all week.

On more sober territory, Agnieszka Holland brings a characteristic autumnal melancholy to her adaptation of Henry James's Washington Square (PG), tweaking the plot here and there to deepen its moral ambiguity. Whereas James's story tells of how good-looking man-on-the-make Morris Townsend attempts to marry the plain young heiress Catherine Sloper for her money, Holland's film relates how Morris (Ben Chaplin) becomes genuinely enamoured of both Catherine (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and her cash. With none of the high aestheticism associated with literary adaptation, Holland has crafted a film full of persuasive emotional muddle and physical awkwardness. No one looks comfortable in their period get-up, not even Albert Finney's old patriarch Dr Sloper. Holland shows us whaleboned and waistcoated bodies colliding at cramped garden parties, the young Catherine (Sara Rusicka) wetting herself in the drawing room, the older Catherine slouching and fainting without the least bit of decorum. With this and Iain Softley's The Wings of the Dove, 1998 is turning out to be an excellent year for Henry James.

Mike Barker's The James Gang (15) has, alas, nothing to do with the above. A road movie about a poverty- stricken family of five on the run from the police, it's an ill-digested mix of social realism and Day-Glo buffoonery. The grown-up performers struggle with a thin script. But the children - particularly Darren and David Brownlie, sharing the role of 11-year-old Spendlove Jnr - are superb.

Just space for a quick trot past the smaller films of the week. John Greyson's Uncut (no cert) offers an eccentric meditation on copyright and circumcision that might put you off calamari for life. Tim Reid's Once Upon a Time ...When We Were Colored (no cert) opens the Barbican's Black Films & Film Makers in the USA season, and serves up a sentimental but satisfying slice of African-American social history, rather like an extended episode of How We Used to Live. For those with a taste for the peculiar, the re-release of Marco Bellocchio's 1965 Fists in the Pocket (no cert) will provide engagingly kinky melodrama with a startling musique concrete score by Ennio Morricone. And lastly - and very leastly - Wishmaster (18) is a dismal horror about evil spirits which can't even stick to the terms of its own cod mythology. It's so numbingly stupid, you'll need a stiff Djinn to recover.

Cinema details: Going Out, page 11.

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