Film: Sex and death in the West Country

The Critics

Few Books in the canon of English literature are as bad as Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure, that sub-Ibsenite slab of doleful sensationalism. This, however, need not mean curtains for the makers of Jude (15), since bad books often translate better to celluloid than good ones. Director Michael Winterbottom and screenwriter Hossein Amini have even attacked the title with a red pen, presumably for two reasons: that obscurity doesn't sell, and to signal that the story has been wrenched around, sweetened and curtailed.

Sweetened? Well, the lovers are nobler, and two fewer people die. Still, this is one grim period drama. It is the nasty tale of a poor boy obsessed with Latin and Greek, who wants to go to Oxford but can't afford it, who marries a local girl but falls in love with his cousin, who dreams of a happy ending but is spectacularly denied one by the laughing Fates. Winterbottom signals his anti- Janeite intent with the prologue: grainy monochrome shots of young Jude out in the Wessex fields. Even Hardy did not deem it necessary to have Jude encounter an ominous string of dead crows hanging from a post, but such is our appetiser.

Jude is being puffed as a film about a quintessentially modern love affair, which just happens to take place in the late 19th century. That is a historical nonsense. Kate Winslet as Sue, Jude's impossible love, is sparky and girlish, charming one and all

with her gorgeously warm and damp fireside disquisition on how women let men seduce them. But she's in the wrong film. Winterbottom seems in fact to realise this, inserting late on an incongruous, Truffaut-esque montage of Winslet riding a bike, laughing, and flirting to camera. What's more, the adaptors have dutifully erased any verbal evidence of Sue's supposedly brilliant mind, stopping her mouth instead with endless cigarettes.

As Jude, Christopher Eccleston always manages to stay just this side of dour. And he suggests far more with his mournful strength and shambling gait than is actually given to him in the script, which morphs him into a straightforward working-class hero.

When Jude is finally living with Sue, he no longer pest-ers her to marry him; instead he resonantly insists that the world must change to accommodate their live- in lovebird lifestyle. See: it did.

There's a chippy, patronising air about the whole movie, which is not dispelled by its successes. Rachel Griffiths's Arabella is touchingly sympathetic, and Adrian Johnston's folk-derived music free from emotional bombast. The film looks superb, too, thanks to Eduardo Serra's luminous photography, darkening the colour and light in the final scenes to point up their emotional gloom, then whiting out after Jude's staggeringly lame last line. At least Hardy's ending had the benefit of logic, whereas this stylish filleting goes nowhere, slowly. It is certainly not Jude the Obscure, for which we may as well be thankful, but nor is it anything else.

Denzel Washington is as mesmerisingly understated as ever in Courage Under Fire (15), a noisy, complex war movie - and he doesn't even take his shirt off. He is Lt Col Nat Serling, a tank commander in the Gulf War who accidentally "lit up a friendly" - ie he blew up a US tank after his gunner misidentified the target. Now back in the Pentagon, he has been buried in a desk-job investigating candidates for military medals in the conflict.

Serling is assigned to investigate the case of Captain Karen Walden (Meg Ryan), a medical helicopter pilot up for a posthumous Medal of Honor after she saved a gang of crashed troops in the desert. Serling interviews Walden's surviving crew members, and comes up with wildly differing versions of the story. First she is a heroine, insist- ing they attack an Iraqi tank and digging in when their chopper is downed. But according to her gunner, Monfriez (Lou Diamond Philips, snarling effectively), she was a coward. The movie is built around flashback reconstructions of these warring testimonies.

Meg Ryan shifts gear with aplomb between her various versions of Walden, and is cutely convincing. The script is sly: the US military's cartoonishly God-fearing jingoism is nicely sketched in the opening battle sequence (green night-vision cameras, bangs and flashes), when Serling leads his men in prayer before muttering: "Let's kill 'em all." When Serling later mentions a tape that will exonerate him, Washington Post journo Tony Gartner (a splendidly weary Scott Glenn) groans: "Sweet Jesus, there's always a tape." Courage Under Fire is fascinating and well acted, and only marred by a final, superfluous crescendo of manipulative schmaltz.

The Nutty Professor (12) is a remake of the 1963 Jerry Lewis comedy, about a geek chemist who invents a potion to transform himself into a Don Juan. This time round, the boffin (Sherman Klump) is Eddie Murphy, whose social handicap is not geekiness but fatness. The obese Klump eventually transforms into Buddy Love, a lithe, Spandexed sex god, in order to woo new chemistry teacher Carla Purty. Love is Murphy without the latex, winningly satirising his own 1980s comedy persona as a brash, vulgar loudmouth. No prizes for that, then, but what is surprising is how touching Murphy is as Klump, the lovable, sensitive fat guy.

As if that weren't enough, Murphy also takes on the roles of the entire Klump family, in a couple of uproarious dinner-table scenes, as well as a camp, white, television-aerobics instructor, who screams things like: "I'm a pony!" Not to beat around the bush, this is a stonking clutch of performances from Murphy, shoving (for instance) the execrable Jim Carrey right back on the dung-heap where he belongs. The movie is directed with absolutely no subtlety by Tom Shadyac, but that doesn't matter, because it is blessed forever with a truly classic hamster scene.

Actors who can't play instruments just shouldn't be allowed to mime them on screen without some tuition. In Letters From the East (no cert) the central character, Anna (Ewa Froling), is first seen sawing away with mimsy vacancy at a cello, which rather undercuts the intended transcendence of the Dvorak concerto on the soundtrack. Anna is an Estonian refugee from the Second World War living in London. When her father dies, she uncovers some old letters from her mother, who she had thought killed in 1944. Who is her real mother? Who is Anna herself, exactly?

To Estonia, to find out. Demonstrations against the marauding Soviets (it is 1989) are filmed by radical lensman Rein, with whom Anna embarks on an affair, while tooling round the country interviewing various elderly people with vague memories of her parents. The actors paint nicely shaded performances, and curiosity is piqued by a series of wartime flashbacks. Director Andrew Grieve has made a film that's longer than the material warrants, but it's pleasur- able enough, especially since Ian McMillan takes such evident delight in photographing a series of astonishing skyscapes simply because they're there.

Orson Welles's Touch of Evil (12) was originally released in 1958, after the big man had been kicked off the project, new scenes written and directed, and 13 minutes shaved off the running time. It has been re- released in a new 108-minute long, 35mm print, which is about as close to the director's cut as we're going to get. Adapted by Welles himself from a dimestore novel, Whit Masterson's Badge of Evil, it's the story of Mexican drug-enforcement cop Charlton Heston, whose honeymoon with wife Janet Leigh is interrupted when he stops in a border town run by corrupt cop Hank Quinlan (Welles, only given the part after Heston's prompting).

Welles is simply enormous, padded up and scowling over cigar and stubble through piggy eyes, leaning on his cane (no pun intended, one fervently hopes), mumbling forever about his hunches and getting sozzled. Everyone casts huge shadows on walls in this particularly viscous noir, and there's even Marlene Dietrich hamming it up as a gypsy fortune teller. However, Heston is as wooden as the scaffolding he creeps through at the finale, and the film showed its age (to audience titters) when a character was asked if he'd had any "reefers". "You think we're crazy?" the guy squealed. Startling from the off, with a famously long, travelling opening shot over Henry Mancini's terrifying Latin-boogie soundtrack, Touch of Evil is flawed but irresistibly mazy. There you go: pulp novel, good movie.

Cinema details: Going Out, page 14. Kevin Jackson returns next week.

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