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THE PORTRAIT OF A LADY

Director: Jane Campion. Starring: Nicole Kidman, John Malkovich, Barbara Hershey, Martin Donovan (12)

Jane Campion's follow up to The Piano takes Henry James's intense novel and fashions a cold but compelling film of immaculate detail. In the late 19th century, Isabel Archer (Nicole Kidman), an American heiress who longs for passion and vigour in her life, but finds only pain and frustration, is touring Europe. Although she has no shortage of romantic offers, she is drawn to the cruel Gilbert Osmond (John Malkovich), whom she meets through the malevolent Madame Merle (Barbara Hershey), and becomes trapped in a claustrophobic marriage to him, despite the concern expressed by her cousin, Ralph (Martin Donovan).

Campion has always managed to puncture her austerity with irreverence, and though The Portrait of a Lady is imaginatively conceived - prefaced, for instance, by an incongruous and bold section featuring latter-day Australian schoolgirls - it does feel weighted by its own coldness.

Technically, it's a dazzling accomplishment, with Stuart Dryburgh's rich but reverent photography accommodating Campion's characteristically fetishistic leanings. There is a sore, wounded central performance from Nicole Kidman, which is even more of a shock than her rehabilitation in To Die For, while Hershey and Viggo Mortensen (as one of Isabel's unsuccessful suitors) also deserve recognition for some subtle work. It's a film to admire certainly - but from a distance.

THE CRUCIBLE

Director: Nicholas Hytner. Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Winona Ryder (12)

Arthur Miller wrote this straightforward adaptation of his enduringly disturbing play about the 17th-century Salem witch trials, and its savage emotion remains intact. What the film misses is any degree of resonance. The director, Nicholas Hytner, seems to realise this: fearful of any distance forming between the action and the audience, he slaps on dollops of George Fenton's overstated score to ram home even the most explicit of Miller's ideas. The result can feel uncomfortably patronising, but even this can't diminish the ferocious strength of the performances.

Daniel Day-Lewis plays John Proctor, a farmer who becomes embroiled, along with the rest of Salem, in accusations of witchcraft. The hysteria springs from the misconstrued antics of Abigail (Ryder) and her friends, who are caught casting love spells in the woods, and use the Devil as their scapegoat. But the lies get out of hand and Salem is besieged by witch hunters and judges intent on ridding the land of evil.

Proctor is in a very vulnerable position: having had an affair with the demented Abigail, he must confront the accusations against him and his wife (Joan Allen) when they are implicated in the madness. As the townsfolk choose to falsely confess in order to save their lives, Proctor has to decide - make a false confession, or become another of Salem's innocent dead.

Day-Lewis summons incredible passion in the final half hour, but until then, The Crucible is driven by Miller's urgent writing and a fine supporting cast, particularly Joan Allen, and Paul Scofield as the silver-haired judge who is the closest thing to Lucifer that Salem has seen.

MARS ATTACKS!

Director: Tim Burton. Starring: Jack Nicholson, Glenn Close, Pierce Brosnan (12)

Tim Burton has long paid homage to B-movie director Edward D Wood Jr, most blatantly with Ed Wood, a biopic of the trashmeister as misunderstood misfit. But Mars Attacks! is the closest that Burton has come to capturing the bizarre atmosphere of Wood's work. He takes a typical Fifties science- fiction plot - little green Martians land on earth, but are motivated by a desire to shrink our population rather than expand their knowledge of the universe - and invests it with his own off-kilter world-view. So the aliens themselves are hyper-intelligent beings who use all the technology at their disposal to lark about like school-kids: they play practical jokes on the terrified earthlings, and sew the head of fashion reporter Sarah Jessica Parker onto the body of her chihuahua, though Parker does go on to have a touching romance with the severed head of Pierce Brosnan.

If it all sounds like the product of a drug-addled mind... well, that's how it looks. The design of the film is superb, particularly the bug-eyed, bowl-brained extra-terrestrials, although the dependence on kitsch for comic effect when all else fails does grate. But this is mostly a riotously funny, joyously puerile comedy, with beautifully judged turns from Jack Nicholson as the President, Glenn Close as his icy wife, Martin Short as a sycophantic advisor, and best of all, Tom Jones as one of the unexpected saviours of mankind.

BOUND

Director: The Warchowski Brothers. Starring: Jennifer Tilly, Gina Gershon (18)

In this flashy new thriller, you get two femme fatales for the price of one. Violet (Jennifer Tilly) lives with the mobster Ceasar (Joe Pantoliano), who launders money for the Mafia. She has a wandering eye, but it wanders where you'd least expect it - no sooner has she laid eyes on her new neighbour, an ex-con named Corky (Gershon), than she's popping round to her place, offering Corky cups of coffee and the old "would-you-like-to-see-my-tattoo?" come-on. Their relationship moves fast, like the film. One moment they're exchanging bodily fluids, the next they're plotting to steal $2m of mob money from Ceasar. But when their plan goes off the rails, Violet must use her ingenuity to save their lives.

Bound clearly longs to be categorised as film noir, though perhaps we shouldn't dignify it by filing it alongside the likes of Double Indemnity and Gilda. This is modern noir: an entirely different kettle of fish. It looks the same - sets draped in shadows and fogged with so much smoke that the audience face the threat of lung cancer; nasty women doing nasty things to even nastier men; and plots which you need a tour-guide and a flashlight to find your way out of.

But everything in Bound exists only in the eye of the camera. Nothing has any consequence, or any depth. You watch the film at one remove from the action because the self-conscious directors, Larry and Andy Wachowski, keep interrupting its flow by showing us the clever tricks they've learned from watching Coen brothers movies. Here's the camera pulling out of the barrel of a gun. Here it is following the path of a telephone cord, right down to imitating the kinks and curls in the wire. They think their noir credentials are secured because one of the mobsters has a poster of a stiletto heel in his bedroom. But how much faith can you put in film-makers whose Year Zero is Blood Simple, and who care more for the detail in a bullet-wound than the depth of their characters?

Ryan Gilbey

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