FILM / Sweet smell of quiet success: There's something rotten about 'The Cement Garden'. But that's how Ian McEwan meant it to be

Quentin Curtis
Sunday 24 October 1993 00:02 BST

ONLY THE olfactory is unsatisfactory in Andrew Birkin's adaptation of Ian McEwan's first novel, The Cement Garden (18). McEwan launched himself out of short stories with a fetid fanfare, something of a scratch-and-sniff novel, in which the orphaned hero, Jack (Andrew Robertson), scratched his spots while everyone else told him how rank he smelt. At the climax of the book, he notices a sweet, slightly rotten smell on his hands, which turns out to come from his mother's corpse, buried by Jack and his siblings in a trunkful of cement in the cellar. With angst, cross-dressing and incest thrown in, it would be a relief if anything smelt merely fishy.

Cinema has to throw up its hands and admit that there's no need for holding of noses. In every other respect, though, Birkin recreates the dream-like desultor iness of the novel. Using a palette of murky browns, dingy greys and malarial yellows, he shades in the spacious but stifling house which becomes the children's grim realm after their parents' death. When father (Hanns Zischler) has the heart attack that his pent-up peremptoriness tells us he's heading for, his grotesque garden of ornamental gnomes, stones and ponds goes to seed. Soon after, bedridden mother (Sinead Cusack) makes the final retreat into her sheets. Birkin adds his own line in drear imagery - cigarettes stubbed out in spittle, underpants flapping on a clothesline.

This domestic wasteland reflects an equally scuzzy state of mind and body - adolescence. Andrew Robertson's Jack finds his lonely pleasures in a sci-fi novel and masturbation. He looks distracted, his eyes constantly narrowed on some point in the distance - maybe adulthood. His sister Julie (Charlotte Gainsbourg), blooming out of her schoolgirl skirts, switches between sulkiness and sultriness, while her relationship with Jack wavers between resentment and desire. With her younger sister, she dolls up their little brother in a girl's frock and blonde wig. It's a world where grown-up values have yet to set - a time of confusion and transgression. As in Lord of the Flies, we're shown a land unfettered by maturity, and again it's an unsettling sight.

Birkin, who wrote the film as well as directed it, has stuck close to the original - the sort of spare, atmospheric novella that adapts well to the screen. The shafts of humour are mainly in McEwan's dry dialogue, especially the skirmishes between Jack, with his callow aggression, and Julie's boyfriend Derek (Jochen Horst). Derek, sadly, is no longer a snooker player, and has lost some of his lofty fastidiousness, but he has the same glib way of humouring Jack, and the same come- uppance. If Birkin misses anything, it's the book's dull ache of pain, the hurt beneath the accidie (we don't see Jack's self-conscious tears at his mother's death). It's not a roaring night out, but has a quiet fascination - more a debate than a date movie.

The dream man in Mr Wonderful (12) doesn't turn up. Instead we get Matt Dillon as an unlikely New York electrician with a habit of interrupting his ex-wife's tenderest moments. She (Annabella Sciorra) has a knack of butting in on his outings with his new girlfriend (Mary-Louise Parker). New York is small for those not in love. This is screenwriting-by-numbers: his electric fingers (he can't pass a dead bulb without fiddling with it) are matched by her green ones (she can't pass a dead bulb without . . .). He aspires to a share in a bowling alley; she aspires to a future, going to college. Though she walked out, he has to pay alimony. His mates hit upon the ruse of finding her a new husband, but she's become picky, preferring Latin to Latinos.

Had director Anthony Minghella also written the script (as he did in Truly, Madly, Deeply) he might have taken us to fresh ground. Instead we get a trudge along a beaten track. It's a relief to watch a romantic comedy without Nora Ephron's self-congratulatory smartness, but this one has no smartness at all. Dillon is less a live wire than a bust fuse. Sciorra has to wonder at new vistas with old stand-bys ('There's so much to know]'). William Hurt as the inevitable philandering professor just draws another sleaze-ball from the cupboard. Even the least demanding viewer will want more.

The child in me sullenly refused to join in the sylvan adventure games of Once Upon a Forest (U) and Homeward Bound (U). Once Upon a Forest is another cartoon reworking of Bambi, with hedgehogs, moles and mice instead of deer, soppiness instead of tragedy, and the embryo eco-theme grown into a rampaging monster. Michael Crawford is the voice of the patriarch, solemnly warning his charges to beware 'The Humans', before sending them to find ointment for a mouse blinded in an oil spillage. He sounds muffled, under layers of dubbing and a lush James Horner score. It's billed as a musical, but there are only three songs. And for all the feeling the drawing instils in the figures, it might be termed inanimation.

Homeward Bound is more ori ginal - and the worse for it. Two dogs and a cat cross the Sierra Nevada in search of the holidaying family who left them at home. The gimmick is that they're real animals voiced by actors: Don Ameche as the old leader; Michael J Fox as his puppyish side-kick; Sally Field as the simpering cat. The animals are moderately well-trained, but their expressions rarely square with the words. And the anthropomorphism, outside its cartoon context, seems condescendingly cruel, denying the characters' animal grace and subtlety.

Pick your beast for Bruce Lee: gazelle, cheetah - or Dragon (15), the title of a sparky biopic. Jason Scott Lee (no relation) as the martial artist doesn't have Bruce's playing- card thinness but plays most of his tricks. We first see him taking out a couple of American marines with a two-footed kick, before back- somersaulting on to a banquet table and coolly munching a slice of trifle. Piece of cake. The early scenes are thrillingly edited, like a flurry of karate kicks - from Hong Kong to California, Chinese restaurants to Kung Fu academies. Later the film loses its way - largely in romance, with Linda Lee, on whose book it's based. Scott Lee has a radiant personality which can be a drawback, since Lee was more louring than luminous; and the film mainly puts Lee's dedication down to his hatred of racism and love of America. You don't have to have his biographer Albert Goldman's nose for drugs and sleaze to believe there was something darker in his concentrated violence than the American dream.

Cinema details: Review, page 98.

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