NEW FILMS

HAMLET

Director: Kenneth Branagh. Starring: Kenneth Branagh, Julie Christie, Derek Jacobi, Kate Winslet, Charlton Heston (PG)

Kenneth Branagh's bright, elegant film of the uncut Hamlet is an ideal way into the play for anyone unacquainted with it. Which is valid in itself, but not at all the same thing as being an inspired or invigorating piece of cinema. Branagh has shot the picture on 70mm, and that emphasises the vast snowy exteriors (he has moved the play to 19th-century Denmark) and palatial interiors, though the film is lush without ever really being cinematic. Its most effective scenes come when Branagh strives for intimacy, an ingredient which the film mostly lacks. His portrayal of Hamlet also misses the brooding intensity which the role demands, so there's nothing really mercurial about this Prince.

Branagh's strength, both as an actor and a director, lies in his ability to bring clarity to language which can sound knotted to the untrained ear. Narrative, rather than subtext, is emphasised, with the result that we can happily feel our way through the plot without ever actually connecting with the emotional core of the text. That's a disappointment, particularly given the efforts of much of the supporting cast. Julie Christie gives Queen Gertrude a sharp edginess, performing a balancing act between blind optimism and a nervous uncertainty about the world crumbling around her, while Derek Jacobi as Claudius is a master of the sinister sideways glance. Best of all is Kate Winslet's heart-crushing Ophelia, whose descent into madness is the only time that the movie really bridges the chasm between functional adaptation and emotional rawness.

There is also a proliferation of cameos, some of them brief and baffling (Gerard Depardieu, Robin Williams, Ken Dodd), others nicely judged (Jack Lemmon, Charlton Heston, Billy Crystal), while a handful of blink-and- you'll-miss-them thespian turns - Sir John Gielgud and Dame Judi Dench, both in fleeting, non-speaking parts - appear to have been included simply to push the film's prestige into overdrive.

That may be what finally defeats the picture. It's too concerned with its own sense of the spectacular to ever communicate the play's tragedy. As with Frankenstein, Branagh squanders the opportunity to integrate aesthetics with emotion. It's rarely a bad film - though some ridiculous, choppy editing, and a wretched cameo by Robin Williams as Osric bring it close.

Instead, it offers more proof that Kenneth Branagh needs to match his enthusiasm and articulacy with some cinematic flair, and a degree of restraint. Any film needs to justify its running time, but in remaining slavishly faithful to the full text, Branagh has constructed an ambitious, but alienating work which his abilities as a director cannot sustain for a full four hours.

POWDER

Director: Victor Salva. Starring: Sean Patrick Flannery, Mary Steenburgen, Jeff Goldblum (12)

Following much the same plot as last year's Phenomenon, but with more imagination, this follows the traumatic life of young Powder (Flannery), so named because of his stark white skin. His mother was struck by lightning while pregnant, and as a result, Powder possesses a fairly electric personality, which comes to the fore when Jessie Caldwell (Mary Steenburgen) persuades him to attend the school she runs.

Powder's academic abilities are astounding - "You have the most advanced intellect in the history of humankind" exclaims one teacher - but his bizarre appearance causes him to be outcast from his peers.

The film is slackly directed, and has a tendency to grope for sentimentality when all else fails. But it also boasts some startling moments, like the bald, blindingly white Powder running into a storm to embrace the lightning, or using his magnetic powers to construct an impromptu sculpture out of cutlery in the school cafeteria.

CONSPIRATORS OF PLEASURE

Director: Jan Svankmajer. Starring: Gabriela Wihemova, Jiri Labus (nc)

After the disappointing Faust, it's thrilling to have Jan Svankmajer back at the peak of his powers. This Freudian shaggy- dog story follows a chain of desire which is instigated by the arrival of a mysterious letter. Through this missive - which says simply "On Sunday" - the fantasies of a group of complete strangers are realised in all their polymorphously perverse glory.

There's scarcely any animation here, but Svankmajer's imagination is at full throttle, relishing the gloriously diverse and obsessive ways in which we each express our sexual desires, and maintaining a taut relationship between the absurd and the grimly disturbing.

SHE'S THE ONE

Director: Edward Burns. Starring: Cameron Diaz, Edward Burns, Jennifer Aniston (15)

This diverting romantic comedy is Edward Burns's follow up to his ingratiating debut, The Brothers McMullen, though it's actually more of a remake. The same concerns motivate Burns's writing and the same crudely drawn stereotypes serve as mouthpieces for his observations on the relationship between men and women.

On the plus side, he knows how to pace comedy, and some of the visual gags, like the two brothers, Mickey (Burns) and Francis (Mike McGlone), sorting out their differences with an impromptu boxing match, work very well. When he learns to write about real people, Burns may really be onto something.

TREES LOUNGE

Director: Steve Buscemi. Starring: Steve Buscemi, Chloe Sevigny, Anthony LaPaglia (15)

In his own directorial debut, Steve Buscemi stars as Tommy, a barfly who gets himself into deep water by hanging around with a teenage friend of the family.

To suggest that the film has even the most minimal plot may be doing it a disservice, since it focuses primarily on inertia, and wrings many of its jokes from wryly observing the dead-end lives of Tommy and his friends.

It's unmistakably a light, ephemeral work, but is laced with real laughs and real affection.

IN LOVE AND WAR

Director: Richard Attenborough. Starring: Chris O'Donnell, Sandra Bullock (15)

Any film which casts clean-cut boy-wonder Chris O'Donnell as a young Ernest Hemingway is off to a bad start, but this tepid story of Hemingway's wartime romance with nurse Agnes von Kurowsky (Sandra Bullock) has other problems to contend with: most fatally, a complete lack of passion which prevents us from caring about the very relationship which is supposed to fuel the film.

FIERCE CREATURES

Director: Robert Young and Fred Schepisi. Starring: John Cleese, Jamie Lee Curtis, Kevin Kline, Michael Palin (PG)

Despite the reports of endless re-shooting, this reunion for the cast of A Fish Called Wanda is nowhere near as bad as has been suggested. Sadly, neither is it as good as you expect from John Cleese, despite a few scenes which hint that the mind which created Fawlty Towers still has some sparkle left in it.

Cleese plays the manager of a tiny British zoo which is trying to defend itself against the corporate might of an Australian tycoon. Kevin Kline is infectiously manic in the dual roles of the tycoon and his son, but Jamie Lee Curtis and Michael Palin are definitely surplus to requirement.

HARRIET THE SPY

Director: Bronwen Hughes. Starring: Michelle Trachtenberg (PG)

A children's comedy, adapted from Louis Fitzhugh's novel about 11-year old Harriet (Trachtenberg) who spends her days recording everything she sees in her top-secret diary, until her scribblings land her in trouble with friends.

The director, Bronwen Hughes, tries to keep the humour bubbling, but even the most patient children will wonder why absolutely nothing happens for the first 50 minutes.

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