First Night: Whisper softly, but Redford may prove a barnstormer

The Horse Whisperer and Wide Prairie Edinburgh Film Festival

THE EDINBURGH Film Festival scored a double coup last night with the UK premiere of The Horse Whisperer and the world premiere of Linda McCartney's 12-minute animation, Wide Prairie.

Dedicating the evening to the late Linda McCartney, Festival director Lizzie Francke described her film as a "very sweet and chirpy little animation".

Produced by both Linda and Sir Paul, Linda wrote the music and lyrics for the story of a woman who leaves behind the world of mobile phones to escape to the open country.

But the main event was the premiere of The Horse Whisperer, Robert Redford's film of the debut novel of the British author Nicholas Evans. Redford made Evans a millionaire overnight, buying the rights to the book before he had even read it.

Last night's premiere had an inauspicious prologue. Ms Francke had sent Redford an invitation and, because he is a fanatical fisherman, three fly fishing hooks to "reel him in". The letter was mislaid and Redford received only the hooks, chucking them away in puzzlement. He told Ms Francke when they did eventually meet recently that he would have loved to have come to Edinburgh, birthplace of his grandfather.

Redford both directs and stars in the movie as the man with power over horses and over a married, hardbitten New York magazine editor played by Kristin Scott Thomas.

It is a sweeping and often moving pastoral epic set among the hills of Montana, but the changes to the international bestselling novel are at times thoughtless, at times utterly bizarre.

In the book the magazine editor, hearing her daughter has been in an accident and has to have a leg removed, asks: "How high above the knee?" It is a point of detail that betrays an inability to express emotion. In the film she asks: "Which leg?" which seems a not-unreasonable question.

Much more importantly, Redford has completely changed the ending. In the book he cannot live with the affair and commits a spectacularly dramatic suicide. In the film he lives and she goes happily back to her husband.

Is the dramatic denouement of the book discarded just so the last shot can be one of Redford gazing moodily over the landscape? As we are dealing here with a man who believes he can play a romantic lead at the age of 60 and that no one will blink (but we do!) it has to be a possibility.

But there are compensations. Scott Thomas gives an Oscar-worthy performance as a woman gradually discovering reservoirs of emotion. She can convey pain and desire without need for words.

And one particular scene might yet find a mention in movie history. Redford has been criticised for cutting out the sexual relationship in the book and instead expressing the couple's passion in a long, lingering encounter at a barn dance. But it works.

He and Scott Thomas dance at first apart, then more closely, holding each other's hand, clasping each other's backs in a way that will not alarm the assembled friends yet gives intense expression to repressed desire. The film could start a new fashion for hoedowns.

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