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THE ENGLISH PATIENT

Director: Anthony Minghella. Starring: Ralph Fiennes, Juliette Binoche, Kristin Scott Thomas, Willem Dafoe, Naveen Andrews (15)

Anthony Minghella's film of Michael Ondaatje's complex novel begins with a haunting, hypnotic series of images heavy with foreboding. Behind the opening credits, a brush paints an outstretched human figure onto a stone surface; the image then dissolves into a roaming shot gazing down upon a dappled desert, over which the painted figure seems to be drifting like a shadow. This shadow is then revealed to be that of a biplane carrying a man and a woman. Just as we are admiring this peaceful image, the plane is gunned down.

Two years later, the surviving pilot, horrifically burned and shrouded in mystery, is being cared for by a nurse, Hana (Binoche), in a bomb-wrecked Italian villa at the end of the Second World War. Gradually, the pilot begins recounting the events which led to the plane crash. He is revealed to the Count Laszlo Almasy (Fiennes), a Hungarian whose love for Katherine (Scott Thomas), the wife of explorer Geoffrey Clifton (Colin Firth), has inadvertently caused anguish and death.

Minghella's greatest achievement is to have welded the disparate stories together. His use of dissolves to slip between eras is masterful, and redolent of Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in America. At one point, a shot of Katherine's fingertips on a window dissolves into a close-up of the scarred Almasy in bed, so that she seems to be touching his face - it's a seamless way of integrating the past and the present, making Almasy's memories tangible and immediate, rather than distant.

Fiennes is instrumental in solidifying his character's emotions. Despite spending much of the film beneath make-up which shrivels him beyond recognition, he manages to communicate distress with spellbinding economy - a slight widening of the eyes, a jerk of the gnarled hands. Even in the flashbacks, Almasy hides most of his feelings, and you learn to read Fiennes's physical shorthand - the way a sudden, impudent sideways stare indicates hurt, for instance.

If only Minghella had devoted more time to the relationships unfolding at the villa; not only between Almasy and Hana, but between Hana and the Sikh officer Kip (Andrews), and the fourth member of this bizarre multicultural family, Caravaggio (Dafoe), a Canadian with a grudge against Almasy. That scenario feels inconsequential compared with the affair between Almasy and Katherine, which has immense weight. Admittedly, Katherine's husband is insidiously demonised - he calls her "sausage", and is celebrated for his ability to draw maps from air trips, only for Almasy to embody the film's sense of intimacy by sneering: "You can't explore from the air. If you could, life would be very simple."

But even this doesn't distract from the very raw, moving nature of the romance. Fiennes and Scott Thomas are excellent at suggesting the intensity and danger of their relationship. They share a memorably scalding scene with Colin Firth just as Clifton is about to embark on an expedition, leaving his wife in the desert with Almasy, and oblivious to the burgeoning relationship between the two which is destined to engulf them all.

It's in these quiet, fleeting moments that Minghella most effectively captures the emotional complexity of Ondaatje's novel, and the maddening recklessness and passion of his characters.

THE EVENING STAR

Director: Robert Harling. Starring: Shirley MacLaine, Bill Paxton, Juliette Lewis, Miranda Richardson (15)

This tardy sequel to the 1983 weepie Terms of Endearment is a more crude and charmless film than its predecessor, though both are motivated by the same ruthless desire to wring tears from the audience even if it means coshing them with endless, overstated death scenes. In The Evening Star, you can be certain that you're never more than 30 minutes away from a terminal illness.

Shirley MacLaine returns as the supposedly loveable but actually damned irritating Aurora Greenway, now presiding over the chaos which the death of her daughter in the first film has brought. Aurora has attempted to raise her grandchildren to the best of her abilities, but one has ended up in prison while her grand-daughter Melanie (Lewis) despises her; Aurora herself, meanwhile, is becoming romantically involved with a counsellor (Paxton) who is young enough to be her son.

Into this bland sitcom scenario, writer-director Robert Harling (who has ventured into this territory before, with Steel Magnolias) sprinkles death and disaster like fairy dust, and in no time at all characters are falling like ten-pins. But he has no cinematic sensibility to draw on - whole scenes consist of nothing but people perusing old family albums - and so the picture has no emotional resonance; it's anti-cinema.

Jack Nicholson appears in a cameo in the last half-hour, and his dirty, rattling laugh brightens the film, but even he can't distract you from the fact that this is lazy, immature, manipulative junk.

MOTHER NIGHT

Director: Keith Gordon. Starring: Nick Nolte, Sheryl Lee, John Goodman, Alan Arkin (15)

Keith Gordon used to be a wonderfully nervy actor - he was Angie Dickinson's geeky son in Dressed to Kill, and he tuned his TV set into heaven in Static - and you would think it a terrible shame that he had turned his back on that career, if he hadn't become such a fine director.

His last film, A Midnight Clear, was barely seen in this country, and his latest, an adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut's novel Mother Night, is unlikely to win him a wide audience. But it's a brave stab at committing a notoriously wily author to the screen, and it's largely a success.

Nick Nolte plays Howard W Campbell Jr, an American playwright living in Germany who is called upon by the US government to infiltrate the Nazis as a spy. But Campbell becomes so immersed in his facade that the line between truth and fiction vanishes, leaving him stranded in no man's land.

NEVER TALK TO STRANGERS

Director: Peter Hall. Starring: Rebecca De Mornay, Antonio Banderas, Harry Dean Stanton (18)

A dark thriller with Rebecca De Mornay as a criminal psychologist trying to sort the truth from the lies in the case of a serial killer, Harry Dean Stanton, who may be suffering from Multiple Personality Disorder. Unavailable for preview.

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