FILM REVIEWS / A further tale of the city: Sheila Johnston on the new releases, including Patrick Keiller's London, a capital new movie from a smoky old town

Sheila Johnston
Thursday 02 June 1994 23:02

London (no cert), Director: Patrick Keiller (UK); Leaving Lenin (no cert), Director: Endaf Emlyn (Wel); In Custody (U), Director: Ismail Merchant (UK); Intersection (15), Director: Mark Rydell (US); Dangerous Game (18), Director: Abel Ferrara (US); No Escape (15), Director: Martin Campbell (US)

London is a city notoriously ill-served by cineastes. But there is a new film which attempts to capture the crumbling, defiant metropolis, to conjure up its genius loci, and even to celebrate it, without undue reverence. Its director, Patrick Keiller, has been around for ages: in the early Eighties he was making droll short films with names like Norwood and Stonebridge Park. It has taken him this long to produce his first feature, which graduates from those prosaic- sounding suburban titles to the appropriately grander one of London.

The film traces three imaginary journeys through London's obscurer nooks and crannies in the company of a wry, deadpan narrator (Paul Scofield) and his friend, who muse on its literary associations - or lack of them - and its slow disintegration as a capital city. Both remain off-screen; their peregrinations are illustrated with carefully framed urban landscapes. Keiller employs an unusual, near-square Academy aspect ratio and seems to favour long focal-length lenses that flatten out the images, giving them an unreal, occasionally surreal quality.

His stylised counterpoint of image and soundtrack has been compared to early Peter Greenaway, but beneath the cool, ironical veneer, there's a subterranean anger that you will seek in vain in Greenaway's work. The year is 1992, and what an annus horribilis it turned out to be: our heroes' odyssey also takes in the unexpected re-election of John Major, the renewal of the IRA's bombing campaign, widespread pit closures and the devaluation of the pound. The film has a political edge, but its ideas are sophisticated enough to avoid hectoring.

The other point of reference is Humphrey Jennings, but its sensibility is cosmopolitan, European, as well as English, and I was most struck by its echoes of Chris Marker's elegant, urbane essay- films. All of which is an attempt to pinpoint what is in fact a real original. The British Tourist Authority wouldn't like London much, but it's the most ambitious, provocative and engaging new British film to surface in a long while.

Shot in Welsh and Russian - now there's an exotic combination - Leaving Lenin tracks a party of sixth-formers and their teachers on a disaster-prone trip to St Petersburg. The vagaries of Russian trains leave the teachers marooned in the provinces minus luggage, money and passports, while the kids run riot in the city. As the old political verities crumble, the members of the group reassess their lives: a hardline Communist sees his ideals evaporating; a gay student confronts his sexuality; a teacher contemplates her stale marriage. The director, Endaf Emlyn, previously made One Full Moon, and brings the same visual brio to this small-scale piece. It's benign, hard to dislike (last year London Film Festival-goers voted it their audience award). But a little predictable.

Ismail Merchant, the master-producer behind James Ivory's cheap-but-opulent films, has at last managed to indulge a long-held ambition to direct his own feature with In Custody. Like much of Ivory's work, this is a gentle, slightly melancholy comedy of culture clash - and a literary adaptation in spades: it is based on a novel about a poet, not the most tractable of source material. A down- trodden provincial teacher lands an assignment which might make his name: he is sent to interview a great but neglected poet writing in the fast-vanishing Urdu language. But the poet is not the guru of his fantasies, and the commission proves fraught with difficulties.

The film is the beneficiary of two experienced, accomplished actors in the rotund shape of Shashi Kapoor as the disillusioned, decadent poet and Om Puri (the ricksaw driver in City of Joy) as his dogged disciple. And the supporting performances, especially the poet's two feuding wives, are very sound: Merchant has an eye for the odd, revealing detail and amusing character. It's not really enough to sustain a two-hour film: In Custody has been scripted by Anita Desai from her own novel, but it feels like a slender short story spun out close to breaking point. An honourable debut, though.

Two of the new American movies cast their female stars starkly against type, to the actresses' advantage but the films' peril. Intersection has been languishing on the shelf for some time, unfairly, for it is by no means without interest. Based on a 1970 film by Claude Sautet, it starts with a perhaps-fatal car accident and flashes back to the events which provoked it: a love triangle involving the driver, a successful but unhappy architect (Richard Gere), his ambitious wife and vibrant, insecure mistress (Lolita Davidovich).

Some thought Sharon Stone miscast as the chilly, probably frigid wife but I found her impressive - hair tightly coiled, wardrobe safely neutral (and very little flesh in sight), she looks a little like Grace Kelly, but without a trace of fire beneath the ice. Mark Rydell directs, often with a leaden hand, but the film is intriguingly structured and has the kind of bittersweet, double-edged ending too rare in mainstream Hollywood these days.

Abel Ferrara has never been exactly a mainstream film-maker, but with Dangerous Game he wanders too deep into the margins, even for die-hard Ferrara addicts. Harvey Keitel plays a pretentious, pony-tailed director, shooting what looks like a dreary movie about a dissolute couple (James Russo and Madonna) whose marriage is on the skids. He does drugs, she does God; these are, in short, typical American lives, ricocheting between hell and heaven.

It is shot in a jagged, rambling style, and you are never quite sure of Ferrara's take on his tragic, self-indulgent characters: is this a wicked satire on Hollywood excess or (more likely, you suspect) a faithful verite portrait of everyday life on a Ferrara set? Still, Madonna was a pleasant surprise, abandoning the cocksure persona of films like A League of Her Own and Body of Evidence for a much more complex portrayal of a smart actress collapsing under the weight of a demanding role (even if - as with Sharon Stone - you long for a competent hairdresser on set who would do something about those dark roots).

In No Escape, a futuristic action flick, Ray Liotta plays a convict torn between a community of primitive savages and a sort of New Age commune. You would describe the film as bog-standard video fodder, except that the violence (there is a penchant for death by impalement) might no longer slip past the British Board of Film Classification these days. The casting is peculiar: Liotta, an actor best known as the psychotic in films like Something Wild, GoodFellas and Unlawful Entry, is the clean-cut hero; Lance Henriksen, professional villain, plays a kindly leader. It's also distinctly low on oestrogen, unless you count the brief sound of a woman screaming in one of the flashbacks.

(Photographs omitted)

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