Cinema; The plot that doesn't thicken

Quentin Curtis
Saturday 24 June 1995 23:02 BST

IN WEEKS like this, when it's dull inside the cinema and bright outside, the critic's usual sinecure plummets down the list of desirable jobs, to rank with . . . well, how about bodyguard to a former US First Lady? Guarding Tess (12), in which a crack secret-service man (Nicolas Cage) languishes in the employ of a former presidential consort (Shirley MacLaine), shows that Cage's job is no bed of roses - even if his first duty of the day is to bring the lady a rose in bed. Eyes that are trained to spot the lone sniper on the book depository top floor look down on such florid duties. The movie is about the residue of power, its petty and empty aftermath, and it is not only MacLaine that has to come to terms with impotence.

Disappointment is a dangerous subject for a movie; melancholy can seep through a film, leaving its audience indifferent or depressed. That is why the old or ageing rarely take centre screen: their dramas of decline are too much of a downer for such an upbeat medium. MacLaine has done more than most to redress the balance, settling into a sour cinematic middle-age. Here, her portrayal of Tess Carlisle - "a national treasure", but to those who know her, a pain in the neck - is a courageous failure. MacLaine brings to the stony-faced old crone not a trace of sentimentality, but not much humour either. She is best as a political Norma Desmond, ordering her staff around her modest Ohio hide-out, hinting at the steely integrity that made her great. She is still big, it's the lodgings that got small.

Agent Doug Chesnic is the sort of role Cage can play in his sleep. Here he almost does, portraying, with drowsy charm, a man itching to be away, aching for action. You suspect Doug's shrug-shouldered sullenness reflects Cage's own feelings about the movie. But his recalcitrance also rubs against MacLaine's imperiousness to create comic sparks. When she orders him around the golf course, he shoots back: "I'm a secret- service agent, Mrs Carlisle, not a caddy." And nobody gives more con- viction to standard Hollywoodhang-dog romanticism than Cage. He can take a corny line like Doug's verdict on his marriage - "Everybody seemed to know what she was really like, except me" - and, with his drooping voice and desolated eyes, open up a whole wistful world.

It is typical of a film of unexplored opportunities that we never hear about Doug's wife again. Too often Guarding Tess feels like a sketch towards a movie. The plot, when it finally arrives, is a surprise, so I won't give it away (except to say that Doug sees some action, and the roots of his employer's dependency on him come into view). Until then the movie is a medley of enticing moments. A fine supporting cast, including Richard Griffiths as a prankster chef, plays MacLaine's thumb-twiddling entourage. Whiling time away by speculating on a prize-fight between Tess and Nancy Reagan, they conclude that Tess's unpredictable battiness is more devastating than Nancy's terrier-like tenacity. The script, by director Hugh Wilson and Peter Torokvei, is full of such witty touches. Every detail has been perfectly prepared - in preparation for a drama that never quite happens. Rather like the life of a secret-service man.

The chief reason for seeing Clockwork Mice (15) is Ian Hart. Hart is the actor whose tartly exact impression of John Lennon was the highlight of last year's Backbeat. Here, as a trainee teacher in a special-needs school in the English countryside, he shows that his wit and intelligence stretch well beyond mimicry (he will soon be seen taking the lead in Ken Loach's Land and Freedom). Hart's shrewd, angular face conveys wonderfully the earnestness and anxiety of the new recruit, as pupils riot around him, and his defeatist colleagues slump behind their copies of the Independent in the staffroom. Some viewers may reckon that what these rampaging and cursing children specially need is a belting. But the film takes a more liberal line, finding salvation in cross-country running and poetry, the twin interests of a tearaway youngster, Conrad (Rhuadri Conroy), befriended by Hart.

This is such original territory for a British movie that Vad- im Jean's hackneyed direction comes as a severe let-down. Jean is nothing if not prolific, having helmed Leon the Pig Farmer and Beyond Bedlam in the last two years, but he makes direction look awfully hard work: the heavy-handed editing of his big scenes - so often crassly intercutting two sequences - blunts the edge of Rod Woodruff's sharp script. The movie throws over the kids, whose intractable problems it had so boldly displayed, in favour of easy uplift. It feels like a re-run of Chariots of Fire, and the ending is straight out of Dead Poets Society, right down to the skirl of bagpipes. Such derivativeness wastes the film's real climax, a scene in which Conrad achieves catharsis by dancing in flying goggles, like a maniacal Biggles, on the roof of a moving steam-train. Framed by rolling green hills, it's an astounding sequence - and a fitting high spot in a film written by a former stuntman.

Maybe the talkies are dead. Tank Girl (15) is the latest (though sadly far from the last) in a burgeoning genre, where words are an irrelevance. It is a crude, garishly pumped-up screen version of a popular comic strip. In a future (2033) world devastated by a crashed comet, the eponymous heroine scraps it out with the forces of darkness. As the macho maiden, Lori Petty strives suitably manfully. Malcolm McDowell demeans himself as the sadistic villain. A few gadgets stand out, including one that dehydrates the human body in a trice, and there is inventive use of cartoons and psychedelic animation. But ultimately the film is more a symptom than a prophecy of dystopia.

Oliver Twist (U) is the centre-piece of a season at London's Barbican celebrating "British Film Music of the 1940s". The first thing you notice about Sir Arnold Bax's score is how little there is of it. The film's tortuous, vertiginous climax isn't accompanied by a single note (imagine how contemporary Hollywood would have drowned it in sound). When the music does come in, it is telepathically in tune with the images: after Nancy Sykes's death, Bax's unfolding woodwind theme announces daybreak a beat before the first shafts of light stream through the window. The film is worth seeing for Guy Green's lustrous photography and David Lean's peerless image-making. But Alec Guinness's Fagin is nothing less than a monstrous carbuncle. I suppose there is a grim appropriateness in such a grotesque anti-Semitic stereotype being served up with so much ham.

Cinema details: Review, page 90.

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