Go And See Atom Egoyan's The Sweet Hereafter (15), and you'll witness a rare event. Without resorting to melodrama or contrivance, Egoyan demonstrates what most directors take great pains to obscure: that people are more complicated than most movies would suggest. And he does this by making a series of devastatingly simple points: that one powerful emotion can transmute into another, and perhaps back again; that grief is more complex than state justice; that children are infinitely precious, and their loss is the most difficult form of bereavement to endure.

Based on the novel by Russell Banks, the film follows a lawyer (Ian Holm) to a snowbound town in British Columbia. Here, he tries to persuade the parents of 14 dead children to sue the company that built the bus in which they perished. Holm supplies a performance of wintry intensity, and Egoyan has the good sense to let us see it in detail: that crack of a mouth, the dusting of white stubble, the hunted, malcontented sadness in his eyes. Directors tend to disguise Holm's physical littleness, but Egoyan uses it as a dramatic asset, at one point making him scramble on his hands and knees towards one pair of heartbroken parents (Earl Pastko and Arsinee Khanjian) whose anger he's trying to stimulate.

Whereas Banks's novel uses multiple narrators, Egoyan's adaptation pulps this bundle of testimony into a single document. But his unjudgemental eye lets other compelling ambiguities flourish. It's difficult to condemn Holm's character as an ambulance- chaser; it's harder to feel that the flawed parents - even one who has been conducting an incestuous relationship with his daughter - deserve retribution (or reward, for that matter). In the same spirit, the film uses Robert Browning's poem "The Pied Piper" as counterpoint to its events: its lines recur, mantra-like, recited by Nicole, the only child to survive the crash (a haunting performance by Sarah Polley). Like Browning, Egoyan uses straightforward techniques to generate an aching sense of loss in an atmosphere of edgy guilt. The script has a stripped-down bleakness. Ian Holm, standing by the taped-up wreckage of the bus, lets his own loneliness elide into that of his clients: "Some- thing terrible has happened. It's taken our children away. It's too late, they've gone."

The film is terrifically moving, but not through the enforced lachrymosity into which some movies herd you like a dipped sheep. Egoyan and his cast have created a entirely plausible emotional world, one constructed with a powerful, austere lyricism. Strongly recommended.

In Antonia Bird's Priest, Linus Roache attends a wake, returns home, gets changed, goes out clubbing, shags Robert Carlyle and bicycles back in time to be putting his pyjamas on as "Sailing By" plays on Radio 4. Unless he's really bad in bed, this simply isn't possible. Bird's Face (18) has many such inconsistencies: a house with a coal fire that's lit when its occupants have been out all day; the strange impression that the action takes place simultaneously at Christmas and during the recent general election. Unfortunately, it is too encumbered with bigger improbabilities to survive this sort of carelessness.

As its heroic lead, Robert Carlyle is the main casualty of the film's shortcomings. Ray is an unlikely hybrid of Dave Spart and "Mad" Frankie Fraser: a crusading left-wing activist seduced into gangsterism by the get-rich-quick allure of armed robbery. Pretty clever with a gun, he has shelf-loads of books and keeps a framed poster of Ken Loach's Hidden Agenda on his bedroom wall. Bird uses flashbacks to Ray's radical past to draw parallels between his pursuit by the police for robbery and his scuffles with them during the Miner's Strike. It's an interesting conceit, but a slightly repulsive one: despite a couple of lines protesting to the contrary, the film makes socialist aspirations complicit with crass nostalgia about East End gangsters keeping their manors safe for old ladies to walk the street. When Ray poses as a policeman to beat up a drug-dealer played by Gerry Conlon (himself a victim of police brutality), Bird deserves credit for a smart metatextual twist. But taken as a whole, her film is largely disappointing, even ludicrous: it takes a crude exit from its own complexities in the final reel, and seems to have few coherent points to make about the conflicts it goes to elaborate lengths to contrive.

Face's cast includes mockney icon Damon Albarn as the Baby Spice of Carlyle's firm. He seems solid enough, but Bird's camera is terribly shy of him, as though she can't trust us not to be distracted by his starriness. The opposite is true of Jon Bon Jovi's role in The Leading Man (15), a baffling, but not completely unwatchable, confection from John Duigan, variable director of The Year My Voice Broke and Sirens. Rather than coolly pretending he isn't there, this film allows the unusual presence of its soft-rocker star to throw it into a messy identity crisis.

Tonally, it's extremely peculiar. What are you to make of a film in which Jon Bon Jovi slow-dances to Peter Skellern's version of "The Way You Look Tonight"? The emotional plot is quite serious, and focuses on the miserable breakdown of the marriage between "Britain's greatest living playwright" Felix Webb (Lambert Wilson) and his wife Elena (Anna Galiena). The problem arises with the context: it's all set against the background of Felix's latest theatrical triumph, in which Hollywood heart-throb Robin Grange (Bon Jovi) plays the lead. The movie's script seems to want to make this play a focus of comic ridicule (a crippled matriarch played by Patricia Hodge is a signally ridiculous part, for instance), but it can't take thespian parody as far as, say, The Tall Guy, because that would make Felix too ridiculous to support the plot's weightier elements.

The press notes - printed as a spoof West End theatre programme - err on the side of piss-take, and include fake biographies of the film's characters - one announcing that Robin Grange is about to collaborate with Humphrey Beale (Barry Humphries) on a musical remake of La Regle du Jeu. It's as confusing as John Duigan's conception of London geography, in which you can walk out of the Playhouse Theatre and emerge next to Tower Bridge. Obviously the Hungerford footbridge wasn't considered adequately picturesque. However, there are weird - and rather snobbish - pleasures on offer, and they come largely from the incongruity of Bon Jovi reading Umberto Eco and saying lines like, "I've never seen a Stoppard play before. I've always wanted to."

Robert Zemeckis's Contact (PG) is inflated with a pomposity that only the most undemanding viewer would mistake for intelligence. Jodie Foster plays Ellie Ann Arroway, a radio-astronomer, one of American cinema's rare atheist heroines, and possibly a distant relation of Ann Urr Melmerhay in The Man With Two Brains. When she intercepts a coded message from Vega, it turns out to be the blueprints of a spacecraft designed to take her to meet its makers. Unfortunately, after a breakneck journey in a through the Doctor Who title sequence in a golfball, Foster alights in an environment that looks like a silkscreen painting you'd win at a fairground Hook-a-Duck stall: shimmering sea, glittery sand - all it lacks is a pair of white unicorns running into the sea. This place is either a) an alien planet, b) the inside of her head, or c) a psychokinetic cocktail of the two, any of which would indicate a failing of somebody's imagination. As does her relationship with a nastily coiffeured religioso (Matthew McConaughey), a union that conveys the film's attempts to equalise scientific rationalism with the candy-pink mulch of daytime TV spirituality. It's as compromising as a collaboration between Richard Dawkins and Dana. Just as questionably, James V Hart's script dwells on the connection between Foster's astral obsessions and her orphan status, turning her quest for evidence of extra-terrestrial life into a search for Dad, God, or as it turns out, the Mekon posing as both. Religion one, Science nil. And we was robbed.

Dancehall Queen (15) has the distinction of being the first "film" to be shot entirely on Digital Video, which means that the image-quality is halfway between TV and celluloid - a little like watching Sky Movies during an eclipse. A Jamaican melodrama directed by Don Letts and Rick Elgood, it is shrieky, up-tempo, and set in the corrugated-iron slums of Kingston. Audrey Reid plays a put-upon street vendor short on cash and self-respect who reinvents herself as a sultry stuff-strutter in a local dancehall. The narrative is roughly elucidated, but there's a gutsy, rather lewd energy at work, and the film has the breezy virtue of seeming not to care about its own inconsistencies, rather than simply being too thick to spot them.

Cinema details: Going Out, page 8.

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