FILM; Going by the book as Les Mis gets modern

THIS week's celluloid sees a battalion of the needy, the depressed, the neurotic and the chronically spoilt; but for an outsize tale of pain and triumph, Claude Lelouch's Golden Globe-winning take on Les Miserables (12) stands alone. That the film works at all is due to Lelouch's stoic resolve to deliver his singular vision. Victor Hugo's sprawling novel of social conscience is regarded in France with a veneration equalled only by that accorded the Bible, and has provided similar mileage - at least 10 movies plus the musical, fondly termed "The Glums" by its cast.

Lelouch updates the story to the Second World War, following the (mis) fortunes of the Ziman family, Jewish intellectuals on the run in Vichy France. This, though, is just one piece of the action in an epic spanning five decades and two world wars, and with each protagonist in Hugo's original reflected at least once.

The relatively still point of the storm is Henri Fortin, dubbed "Jean Valjean" by those he helps (lifting pianos off people, that kind of thing) and played with craggy fortitude by Jean-Paul Belmondo. A van driver whose boyhood boxing career foreshadowed a life of slugging it out with fate, Fortin smuggles the Zimans through a Nazi checkpoint, and thus their fortunes are linked. Thereafter, he provides narrative cohesion via an obsession with Hugo's novel, scenes from which pop up at pertinent intervals.

The flaw is that apart from Belmondo's avuncular strongman, an illiterate struggling to read and learn from a book he feels reflects his life, no single character engages the emotions. Cocteau heart-throb Jean Marais makes an uncannily handsome Bishop Myriel and there are gritty comic turns, notably from Philippe Leotard and Annie Girardot as lust- and jealousy- crazed farmers who hide the wealthy Ziman pere for the duration and, schemingly, beyond. Otherwise, it's set-pieces that provoke response: a would-be escapee's thumping fall down a well shaft; soldiers singing the "Marseillaise" in a snowy prison yard; a group of betrayed Jewish families mown down in dawn light; the giddy dancing of a wedding group. Rather over-orchestrated, Les Miserables comes together best as lush panorama and, generously, as a hymn of praise to a book.

Chillier and more enigmatic is Katia Ismailova (18), whose eponymous heroine has had the ill luck to wed a workaholic mummy's boy, Mitia. Mother is Irina, coquettish harridan of a novelist whose scribble Katia must type up. Loosely hung on Nikolai Leskov's 1864 short story, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, our tale is set in modern-day Russia, but there's a traditional sense of anticipation when the trio set off "for the dacha", where Irina plans to complete her opus. In the remote house lurks Sergei, Armaniclad Brad Pitt lookalike and furniture restorer; unwisely, Mitia goes on a business trip. Sergei, no slouch, swiftly offers his services to the repressed Katia (Burnt By the Sun's Ingeborga Dapkounaite, a woman who makes Kate Moss look hefty) and, after an erotic coupling on a window ledge, she realises there may be more to passion than her husband had led her to expect. This, though, is her undoing. Driven by an almost inarticulate desire for the handyman (Bergman would admire the economical dialogue of this eerily languorous, dreamlike film), Katia methodically dispatches impediments to the affair, and soon finds herself steeped in blood. The playing in this low-key film noir can seem elaborately restrained but, finally, it makes the picture more subtly disturbing.

Not, however, as disturbing as Father of the Bride Part II (PG). Just as the emetic first instalment was based on Vincente Minnelli's sparkling 1950 original, so this copies the follow-up, Father's Little Dividend. Those not in denial may recall Steve Martin as George Banks, who can't bear his daughter to get hitched. Now, of course, the trollop is pregnant, but the horror doesn't stop there, because her mother Nina (Diane Keaton), has somehow managed the same feat. It seems impossible, since all evidence suggests Dad's far less interested in his wife than in the special relationship he thinks he has with his daughter Annie (Kimberly Williams) - a subtext of Bouquet of Barbed Wire proportions, surely. In fact junior's conception is the result of California's anti-ageing laws: when George learns of his impending grandfatherhood, he tints his hair, dresses in creepy Beat- style roll-necks and gets it on with Nina on the kitchen floor. ("Whaddya mean ... make ... love?" she gasps.)

There follows unpleasant business about the indecency of older parents, but that's not all that's tasteless. Apart from a few stereotypes (a hirsute Arab entrepreneur who shouts at his wife and smokes, and the luckless Martin Short, reprising his mincing gay act), perhaps the most offensive notion is that these people have problems other than the psychological sort. They live in mansions, drive cool cars and seldom visit the office, yet the slightest hiccup ("The baby suite isn't finished!") causes tears. Take a breath, George. Think of the therapy that kind of money could buy.

"I feel really dreadful." "So do I. So does everybody." If it's mania coupled with squalor you want, your best bet is Withnail and I (15). This tenth-birthday re-release proves the film's enduring relevance - soles flapping off shoes, rat-infested kitchens, dole cheques, and Deep Heat for warmth: what is this if not 1990s Britain? The Camden of '69, however, boasted finer repartee and style. As conceited thespian Withnail, Richard E Grant is all bulging eyeballs, cadaverous frame and mint-green pallor, a goth ahead of his time. Self-involved beyond belief and an incurable drama queen ("Keep back. Keep back, I say. The entire sink's gone rotten"), it's no surprise there's nothing left when he turns up for auditions. Trailing in the wake of Withnail's aristocratic bellow, Marwood (Paul McGann) seems but a dogged retainer, trapped on a roller- coaster of depravity. Face framed in curls (though his eyes are scarlet), working- class tones a hoarse whisper, Marwood is a faux innocent. He cries easily, due to the drugs, but can put away a round ("a pair of quadruple whiskies and another pair of pints") with ease. In a bid to escape the hell of their refuse-tip home, the pair rattle off in a downpour to Penrith, where Withnail's Uncle Monty has a country cottage, and it is in this leaking shack that Marwood must confront his biggest fear: Uncle Monty and his desire for a "firm young carrot". Restrained direction, faultless performances and Danny the medicine man ("I don't advise a haircut man

Finally, an unexpected gem. Angel Baby (18), centrepiece of the Tooheys Australian Film Season, is a directorial debut from Michael Rymer and a deft blend of menace, humour and bravery. Set in Melbourne, the story concerns Harry (John Lynch), whose career has been halted by bouts of psychosis. When, at his clinic, he meets beautiful, unbalanced Kate (Jacqueline McKenzie), he falls wildly in love, and, despite her wariness ("I don't hang around with psychos," she barks, a Courtney Love glint in her eye), they embark on a delirious relationship. Despite resistance from patronising doctors and Harry's family, the couple set up home, but their bliss is tested when Kate becomes pregnant and quits her medication for the sake of the child. The ramifications, as Harry and Kate fight their demons and the authorities to keep hold of a passionate, magical world, are moving and wholly compelling.

Cinema details: Review, page 68. Australian Film Season: Barbican, EC2 (0171 638 8891), to Thurs.

Quentin Curtis returns next week.

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