Making a mountain out of a molehill

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HUGH GRANT starts with a stammer, and ends with a girl in his arms: a new film, but not a new role. "Excuse me, does anyone here speak English?" is Grant's emblematic first line in (and as) The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill But Came Down a Mountain (PG). Grant takes that one line of quintessential English insularity masquerading as inquiry, and turns it into an aria of hesitant charm - you wonder whether he'll ever finish. If Grant has developed mannerisms, then at least they are his own mannerisms. His stutter is second only to Woody Allen's. Like Allen's, it is not so much an impediment to speech, as a run-up to wit - the splutter before the engine roars into action. Tabloid notoriety may be the obvious link between Grant and Allen, but they both also have a way of manufacturing charm out of anxiety.

Grant's chief anxiety in The Englishman may be that the flimsy script will fade away altogether. An end title explains that the film is based on a story handed down through the family of its director, Chris Monger. It feels like a fleshed-out anecdote. Grant plays an English cartographer visiting a small Welsh village during the Great War to record the height of the local mountain. To qualify as a mountain the elevation must be over 1,000ft; otherwise it's just a hill. When Grant measures it at 985ft, he sets off a battle between cartography and regional pride. Soon the villagers are erecting a mound that will tip the hill over the magic 1,000ft mark - and devising ways of detaining Grant until they're ready for him to measure it again.

A promising, even magical premise, but Monger - who also wrote the movie - dilutes its originality with comic common-places. The Welsh characters come over like rejects from Under Milk Wood: a fire-and-brimstone preacher, in black bowler hat, and with exaggerated severity and whiskers (Kenneth Griffith); his sworn enemy, a randy inn-keeper (Colm Meaney); the usual pair of identical-twin simpletons, Thomas Twp and Thomas Twp, Too. In time-honoured fashion, someone introduces the twins and then realises he has got them the wrong way round. There's even our old comic friend, the malapropism. Meaney protests: "I hope he doesn't intend sticking to his obviously euphonious measurement." The community is so sketchy that its eventual pulling together fails to move us. And the idea that the mountain might be a sexist society's virility symbol is hinted at and then allowed to go begging.

The English are as much caricatures as the Welsh. Grant has a Bunter- ish side-kick (the entertaining Ian McNeice), complete with bow-tie, walrus moustache and plus-fours, who spouts xenophobia against the Welsh: "Can't be too careful in foreign climes." "Stop acting so English," a Welsh character will say, when a compatriot gets uptight. But the racial rivalry feels inauthentic, and petty rather than comic. There is a rapprochement between the nations, in a romance between Grant and Tara Fitzgerald, who plays a flighty Welsh girl. But it's undermined by insultingly weak development, and photography which is less flattering to Fitzgerald than to the rolling Welsh landscape.

Most people will see the film for Hugh Grant - and that is the right reason. His exploration of the pathology of Englishness is, if familiar, still fascinating. The automatic charm works alongside the repertoire of tics - the furrowed brow, the dutiful smile and the nervous smoothing of the hair. But he shows how the English toff's complacency cancels out his desire to please. Grant has had a lot to contend with recently. To his American tribulations, this film adds a feeble script and a fright- show of a wardrobe - stripey shirts and foppish felt hats, which tilt his dandyish decency towards effeminacy. There are signs, though, that he has the talent to pull through.

The ingredients of Free Willy 2 (U) are much the same as those of the first film: one obnoxious kid (Jason Lee Richter); vistas of sparkling blue water; not much of a plot; and an improbably friendly killer whale, which arches its bulky yet graceful body in the air while letting off mighty jets of spume. There's a new character: the boy's long-lost brother (Elvis), who introduces a note of sibling rivalry. But there's still an over-reliance on Willy, as if we, like the children, were expected to be endlessly fascinated by him. After a while, you long for an ecological disaster to put paid to all this bland Natural Geographic splendour. Right on cue, an oil tanker does its worst, perking up the plot and providing a Valpurgisnacht finale, in which Willy fights for his life amid the flames. Throughout, the stunning photography of Laszlo Kovacs (cinematographer of real films like Easy Rider and New York, New York) lends the movie a deceptive class.

I embarked on The Big Sleep (PG) in a Philip Marlowe state of mind: wary, determined, and a touch cynical, set on finally nailing the perpetrators of the film's eight murders - and, perhaps, with them, the movie's dark mystery. Of course, after about half an hour, the labyrinthine complexities, delicate dummies, feints, and double and triple bluffs, had stymied me once again - just as they did Raymond Chandler, his fellow adaptors, and Howard Hawks, the film's director. There is a certain winded pleasure in being enmeshed in such intricate intelligence. But also, and rightly, a kind of despair. Chandler's world is a dark rebuttal of Agatha Christie and the traditional crime novel, where all the clues worked out, adding up to a neat arrest. In The Big Sleep, evil is pervasive and irreversible: the film presents a world populated by swindlers, gamblers, pornographers, whores and murderers, hard men and loose women - and provides no easy way out. Even though the central romance between Bogart and Bacall has, in The Big Sleep, lost some of its bite since To Have and Have Not, the film is that rare thing: a great adaptation of a great book. Nearly 50 years on (it was first released in 1946), it stands up well. But if I had to choose between book and movie, the matchless elegance and pith of Chandler's prose would still swing it. The re-release is courtesy of Artificial Eye. Over the next year, they will be returning to the cinema other classics, including Touch of Evil and the first two Godfather films.

Also recommended is I Just Wasn't Made For These Times, Don Was's black- and-white documentary about Beach Boys' founder, Brian Wilson, which plays at the National Film Theatre next Friday and Saturday (it will also open the new BBC Omnibus season on 3 September). The film is as interesting on Wilson's extravagant compositional gifts as his wild personality. It analyses Wilson's debts to Phil Spector and Chuck Berry, and his bequests to the Beatles, his mixture of musical erudition and instinctive genius. Tom Petty compares him to Beethoven, and when the film allows the music full flow (too rarely), its chord changes, lush, full-throated background vocals, and Wilson's own piping falsetto, make you feel it would be churlish to disagree. Wilson appears addled by past alcohol and drug excess, but his big, bruised face still bristles with energy. His first wife wryly suggests that some of his lyrics were disingenuous. "Where is the girl I used to know? / How did you lose that happy glow?" he wrote about her. Spending my life clearing up after you, was the answer.

'The Big Sleep': Chelsea, 0171 351 3742, 1.20 3.45 6.15 8.45. 'I Just Wasn't Made ...': NFT, 0171 928 3232, 8.45 Fri, 6.10 Sat. All other cinema details: Review, page 68.

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