SLEEPERS

Director: Barry Levinson. Starring: Kevin Bacon, Robert De Niro, Dustin Hoffman, Brad Pitt (15)

At the beginning of Sleepers four New York teenagers go to Hell for a hot-dog cart. Stealing a vendor's trolley in a misguided prank, Lorenzo, Michael, John and Tommy accidentally injure a passer-by and are sent to a reform school which makes the borstal of Scum look like Butlins. At this point in the film, more perceptive audiences will have discerned that imprisonment is A Bad Thing.

But no matter how grim it gets, the movie's supply of humiliations and indignities never runs dry. Most of them are dealt out by the guard Nokes, who is the picture's Freddy Krueger in all but the stripey jersey. He's the ringleader of a bunch of screws who rape and beat the four new inmates. As played by Kevin Bacon, who curls his lip like Joan Crawford, Nokes is so over-laden with camp embellishments that you're startled when the film lurches on two decades and finds him as a gnarled nobody, sinister in his mundanity. Two of the boys he abused, now adults, recognise him and decide it's eye-for-an-eye time.

In Sleepers, the blast from a gun is purgative. Victim support groups may have something to say about the film's assertion, in the final courtroom scenes, that you can put abuse behind you with the help of a dynamite lawyer, mob influence, and a priest (De Niro) who's prepared to commit perjury. And what if you don't have access to any of the above? What then?

It's not the facts, or lack of them, which jar so much as the film's extremes of tone, careering between honeyed idealism and vicious sadism. Almost half of Sleepers is a period piece laced with an unsophisticated sense of longing. Life is a Beach Boys' song. The sentimentality is complicated by a portentous voice-over, with the adult Lorenzo (Jason Patric) viewing his youth through the horrors that would later visit him - so his reminiscences are both intoxicatingly sweet and dense with foreboding.

Levinson sets up his young naifs as sacrificial lambs; he doesn't want us to feel their pain, he just requires us to be appalled by their ordeal. And who isn't appalled by child abuse? He's on a winner and he knows it. But he can't stop there. Do we need distorted sound effects? Or flashbacks styled, with dubious intent, after Un Chant D'Amour? About as much as we need an intertitle assuring us that Molesting Children is a Bad Thing Too.

SHINE

Director: Scott Hicks. Starring: Noah Taylor, Geoffrey Rush, John Gielgud (12)

Scott Hicks's film, despite openly declaring itself to be about the triumph of the human spirit, is far more than the sum of your goosebumps. It concerns freedom - the emancipation of an Australian pianist named David Helfgott, whose savage talent was smothered by his tyrannical father, for whom paternal love equalled absolute power.

Both actors who play David - Noah Taylor in the early parts, Geoffrey Rush later on - have a quizzical face like a permanent question-mark. That's appropriate. David seems to be constantly searching, grabbing at something, first with his playing; and then later, after a nervous breakdown, with his mind. Peter forces David to tackle Rachmaninov's 3rd at an early age, and David's speech patterns seem to adopt that concerto's frantic rhythms. When David plays it in concert, Hicks cuts between two opposing shots of the feral pianist, and it seems that the music has cleaved the boy in two.

Hicks knows how to balance a film. Whereas Sleepers punishes us even as it leads its victims out of their pain, Shine juggles light with dark.

And it isn't pompous about David. It allows him his snatches of foolishness. His transformation into a wine-bar piano wizard could play like a freakshow if the movie didn't admit that David is complicit in his own life. That's what freedom means.

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