Every which way but looser

THE CRITICS CINEMA
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THE Hollywood version of The Bridges of Madison County (12) belongs to Clint Eastwood. Not just because he directed and co-produced it, stars in it, and co-wrote the wistfully elegant theme tune. Nor even because, under his aegis, a piece of slavering romantic schlock has been turned into a restrained and dignified approximation of a work of art. But, stranger still, in this duet with Meryl Streep, after years of posing and parading and rehearsing laconic variations on cool, Eastwood has begun to act. He breezes around with the slightly gingerly relaxation of one who has spent 30 years in uniform, or stuck on a horse. Allowed to be himself, he reveals the man behind the icon.

Eastwood plays Robert Kincaid, a National Geographic photographer on assignment in Iowa in the autumn of 1965, shooting the Roseman and Holliwell covered bridges. Surprisingly, for a wanderer who has (we later discover) stomped across Africa, he is lost. Happily, he ends up at the bottom of the drive of Francesca Johnson (Meryl Streep), who is lost too - astray in a 15-year-old marriage not so much loveless as passionless. Her solid husband and sullen kids are away for four days selling a prize steer. "Had we but world enough and time, this coyness, lady, would be no crime," Clint might have wooed her; but instead of Marvell he quotes Yeats. Soon they are building bridges, as well as photographing them.

Eastwood's Kincaid has a kind of weatherbeaten innocence. He wears thick leather braces, a khaki shirt and stiff, serviceable jeans. His unkempt hair is a riot of grey and he has a beaming, messianic gaze. When he draws Streep's housewife out, there is no sense of seduction or guile, just curiosity. With this ruffled decency, Clint has opened up a new side to himself, which may be close to his real self - a likeable, well-mannered conservative. Oddest of all is the sight of Clint smiling so often, revealing a row of rather dainty teeth. It feels as if a visor has been opened to let a shaft of light into his brooding screen persona.

The other hero is the adaptor, Richard LaGravenese, who has swum through syrup to bring back a movie. He has siphoned off most of Robert James Waller's prose, which in the book let rip with the empurpled power of a dozen Barbara Cartlands, rescuing a taut two-hander - almost an acting exercise. There is the odd echo of former lushness. At the film's climax, Clint asserts: "This kind of certainty comes but once in a lifetime." Who, even in 1965, would use that poeticised "but" (instead of "only")? Occasionally, too, LaGravenese lulls us with borrowed tunes. In a letter to her children, which frames the film, Francesca tells them that she is revealing her affair because it is "important to be known". A resonant phrase, but filched from Arthur Miller's A View from the Bridge, where the chorus softens Eddie Carbone's tragedy with it.

But mainly LaGravenese's writing is masterly, catching the inconsequentialities out of which love is formed - arguments over the colour of a dog, japes with bunches of flowers. A former stand-up comedian, he even inserts a joke or two among the solemnity. One of Francesca's children cracks bitterly that "in between bake-sales, my mother was Anais Nin". These interspersed present-day scenes give the film a sly hint of tragedy from the outset, grounding it in the sour everyday that Francesca couldn't escape. Later they get rather swept away by the force of the main narrative. But LaGravenese is always at pains to tether his inflated love story to the mundane world. At the affair's height, Francesca is visited by her neighbour, Madge, an old battleship in a floral-print dress, who fires fusillades of gossip in her wake.

Critical battle-lines have been drawn on Meryl Streep - genius or fake, chameleon or charlatan. I hold with the latter, less flattering assessment. The great technician's technique never quite stretches to creating reality. A Streep performance is less an imitation of life than an embroidery of tics. Here, we locate them in seconds: an Italian accent (Francesca met her husband when he was a soldier stationed in Italy), and a waddle, thanks to a bit of padding round the waist. Her gestures are a mite too studied - as when she scratches the bridge of her nose after taking off her glasses - drawing attention to themselves rather than expressing the character. But she does have a few fine moments, when a frantic fidgetiness betrays her mounting passion.

The film's failure to move us deeply may be less to do with Streep's artificiality than something in Eastwood so straight and serious it precludes him from passion. His film never quite clenches our emotions. That said, it is far better than we had any right to expect. The movie has been so comprehensively marketed that it was bound to be a commercial triumph. The surprise is that it is so close to an artistic one as well.

Benjamin Ross's debut, The Young Poisoner's Handbook (15), takes the true story of Graham Young, the schoolboy psychopath who poisoned his stepmother and others in 1960s London, and turns it into a perceptive black comedy which never loses sight of the horror behind its humour. Ross and his co-writer Jeff Rawle capture the absurd conformity and seething repression of the suburban setting of Young's crimes, where families, like Graham's own, sit mesmerised night by night in front of the television. More than this, they make us see that Graham's murders sprang from a deceptively idealistic form of fascism. For him science was an aesthetic pursuit, a search for a beauty and order in the world that fatally became more important than human beings.

The astounding Hugh O'Conor (the young Christy Brown in My Left Foot) conveys the eerie, complex genius of Graham Young. His preternaturally gentle voice has the hush of death in it, and the precision of his speech comes to seem spooky. A pair of beady black eyes stare out at the world in hooded arrogance. His pallid face is often shot in a cold white light that gives it an even greater ethereal chalkiness. Above all, O'Conor captures Graham's haughty, intellectual distinction. When, after years in prison, he is released to a civilian job, his sad, soulful look suggests a mind nostalgic for a higher plane. This is no monster, but a boy whose curiosity outruns his judgement. In this story, the cat is just about the only one curiosity doesn't kill.

Antony Sher is also fine as Graham's earnest, intelligent, but slightly blinkered prison psychologist. Ross edits the film beautifully, setting it to a score by turns jaunty and funereal, usually in counterpoint to the action. Never mind Shallow Grave, this is the sharpest and bitterest British film of the year.

The rest all sound promisingly different, but betray their bizarreness with underscripting. Chungking Express (12) is a Hong Kong thriller with some Godardian panache but not enough thrills. Higher Learning (15), an ambitious, African-American college drama, flounders through apocalyptic glibness. Blue Juice (15) is a crass comedy about surfers in Cornwall which Channel 4 shouldn't have allowed onto the small screen, let alone the big.

Cinema details: Review, page 76.

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