`Patient' is a virtue

 

"The English Patient" (15) Savoy, Virgin, Omniplex, UCIs, Dublin

Four years ago, speaking at an Irish Times Film Forum in Dublin, the English screenwriter and director Anthony Minghella spoke eloquently, and a hint nervously, of his hopes of bringing Michael Ondaatje's Booker Prizewinning novel, The English Patient, to the screen. He was acutely aware of the daunting task that lay ahead in adapting a complex and elliptical novel which many regarded as unfilmable.

And when the script was finally cracked, there was the battle to secure the financing necessary to film such an ambitious, and potentially uncommercial project, and the task of choosing and standing by the right cast in the face of Hollywood studio opposition. He has succeeded triumphantly.

Spanning six years between 1939 and 1945 and a variety of striking locations in North Africa and Italy, Minghella's film of The English Patient is composed in a series of haunting images all the way from the opening shots of sand dunes in the Sahara, photographed from overhead to resemble sensuously intertwined bodies, and the appearance of a small plane carrying a woman looking dreamily asleep and the pilot behind her in his goggles and leather helmet. Later, as the movie goes into flashback, the bodies of those two characters themselves will become sensuously intertwined.

The man is Count Laszlo de Almasy (Ralph Fiennes), a Hungarian linguist and explorer who comes to explore the Sahara by plane and by car, and the woman is Katharine Clifton (Kristin Scott Thomas), a scholar and painter who travels there with her husband, Geoffrey (Colin Firth) as part of a Royal Geographical Society expedition. Looks and glances reveal the mutual attraction which develops between Katharine and Almasy and explodes in passionate love-making.

With the movie skilfully moving backwards and forwards in time, we have already met Hana (Juliette Binoche), a young French-Canadian nurse caring for the war wounded at a monastery in Tuscany and convinced by her traumatic wartime experiences that she is cursed, that anyone for whom she feels love is doomed. Another Canadian arrives at the monastery - the mysterious Caravaggio (Willem Dafoe) whose hands are covered and who craves Hana's morphine supply. And towards the end of the war Hana finds herself drawn to Kip (Naveen Andrews), a Sikh bomb disposal expert.

As their pasts are revealed, the destinies of all these principal characters are gradually unravelled within the deeply intriguing structure of this rich and lyrical picture of loyalty and betrayal in love and war. This is a radical adaptation which transposes, re-assembles and deletes key elements of the novel to achieve a pure cinematic reinvent ion that is admirably adroit - and as distinctive a work of art as the book remains in its own eight.

In re-imagining the novel in all its many plots and strands, Anthony Minghella's screenplay is subtle but never simplistic, and demanding but abundantly rewarding, as all the disparate pieces of the puzzle fall into place - so much so that I imagine the movie will prove all the more involving on a second viewing, to re-experience its powerful sense of longing and desire and to savour again its breathtaking visual quality from the aforementioned opening scenes to the power and beauty of its landscapes to the thrilling sequence when Kip and Hana visit a pitch-dark church, he lights a flare and it illuminates the frescoed walls.

Such is the achievement of The English Patient that it is hard to credit that it's just the third feature directed by Anthony Minghella, and it marks a quantum leap from the modest scale of his first two features, Truly, Madly, Deeply and Mr Wonderful. The new film is a tour de force in all its creative departments and features remarkable work by production designer Stuart Craig, costume designer Ann Roth, lighting cameraman John Seale, film editor Walter Murch and composer Gabriel Yared. And the cast is immaculate, with Kristin Scott Thomas and Juliette Binoche, in particular, more radiant than they ever have been.

"Ridicule" (15) Screen at D'Olier Street, Dublin

The most satisfying film directed by Patrice Leconte since Monsieur Hire in 1988, Ridicule, Leconte's first period picture, is set in the court of Louis XVI, in 1780 nine years before the French, Revolution. It is a sumptuous production, but positively not a period movie in thrall to its costumes and settings and the people who inhabit them, as Leconte makes clear in an abrupt display of one character's contempt for another in the opening sequence.

Ridicule follows the serpentine route which has to be taken by a concerned landowner, Poceludon de Malavoy (Charles Berling) when he seeks official permission to drain the fever-infested waters on his estate. Travelling to Versailles to petition the king, he learns that his only hope of access to the royal chamber is by exhibiting a rapier-like wit - because wit opens doors when you have no money. To this end, Ponceludon is guided by the avuncular Marquis de Bellegarde (Jean Rochefort), who collects quips, epigrams and double entendres in a book.

In the tradition of Dangerous Liaisons, Leconte's film is a jagged satire on the hypocritical mores and absurd customs of its morally bankrupt aristocracy, exposing a world of flattery, cronyism, exploitation and decadence where wit is a weapon and names and careers are made and lost by an individual's skill at verbal jousting. The more cutting and humiliating the verbal blows, the more esteemed the joker.

Not without its contemporary resonances in our soundbite world, Ridicule views this corrupt milieu through the eyes of Ponceludon, who soon realises that he himself is no paragon and recognises his own weaknesses when he gets caught between the sexually predatory Countess de Blayac (Fanny Ardant) and the Marquis de Bellegarde's pure, scientifically-minded daughter, Mathilde (Juliette Godreche) who carries out ongoing experiments to make a diving suit watertight.

One of the sturdiest, most entertaining French films of recent years, Ridicule is strikingly designed and photographed, and splendidly played by a fine cast, led by Charles Berling, a stage actor whose previous screen role was that of Nelly's lazy husband in Nelly Et M Arnau. It is not surprising that Ridicule took the Cesar for best French film of last year and that it is France's entry in this month's Oscars.

"Gold In The Streets" (15) Savoy, Virgin, Omniplex, UCIs, Dublin

The Pogues performing Thousands Are Sailing on the soundtrack which accompanies the arrival of Liam (Karl Geary), a young Irish emigrant, in New York in Gold In The Streets the debut feature as a director for Elizabeth Gill, who was born and raised in Dublin and studied at NYU Film School. Befriended in a bar by another young Irishman, Owen (Jared Harris), a construction worker, Liam is offered accommodation in his cramped apartment along with Owen's cousin, Des (Ian Hart) and a Kerryman named Paddy (Aiden Gillen). Across the corridor lives Owen's girlfriend, Mary (Louise Lombard) and her friends (Andrea Irvine and Lorraine Pilkington).

This picture of homesick young Irish people, all of them working illegally in the US, is based on the 1989 play Away Alone by Janet Noble, who adapted it for the screen with the film's producer, Noel Pearson. Eight years on from its first stage production, there is a dated feel already to the material, which is too slight to maintain a feature film. The characters are mostly predictable stereotypes whose fates are all too well signalled all too far in advance.

In a cast that also includes Jim Belushi and a deliberately wasted Tom Hickey, the only two actors who manage to breathe any life into their characters are the versatile Jared Harris as the practical, commonsensical Owen, who dreams of returning home to open his own restaurant, and as his girlfriend, the unfamiliar English actor Louise Lombard.

Aiden Gillen, who had much more to do in Terry George's Some Mother's Son and Antonia - Bird's Safe, has an accent thicker than the Bog of Allen, while the very talented Ian Hart can make nothing of his miserable character Des. In the pivotal role of Liam, the pouting Karl Geary is merely tiresome. Elizabeth Gill's direction is competent but quite unadventurous, and grating at times, as when she cuts between the bootieclad feet of pampered dogs and the bare feet of a homeless passerby.

"Walking And Talking" (members and guests only) IFC, Dublin

One of the many US indies:, screened at the Dublin festival, and one of the most amiable, is director Nicole Holofcener's first feature, Walking And Talking, which focuses on two women, best friends since their school days and now at the end of their twenties. Laura (Anne Heche) is a therapist who lives with her boyfriend, (Todd Field) and is about to marry him, while Amelia (Catherine Keener) is beginning to despair of finding the right man.

Talking And Talking might have been a more apt title for this loquacious movie of neuroses and romantic problems which inevitably evokes the influence of Woody Allen. Its slender narrative is economically unfolded in succinct scenes and features a good deal of acute observations, and it is attractively photographed by Michael Spiller, Hal Hartley's regular lighting cameraman. The root of the movie's appeal, however, is in the fresh, naturalistic central performances of Catherine Keener, who has featured in all three of Tom DiCillo's movies, and Anne Heche, last seen to much less effect in the forgettable The Juror.

Hugh Linehan adds:

"The Informer" (Gen) Ambassador, Dublin

In an era when dramas about Irish political violence are more common than ever before, the rerelease in a new print this week of John Ford's 1935 film, set in Dublin during the War of Independence, provides a welcome opportunity for comparison. But even a gap of more than 60 years can't conceal the fact that The Informer is a deeply flawed, dreadfully heavy-handed film, despite the Academy Awards won by Ford, screenwriter Dudley Nichols and composer Max Steiner. Only Victor McLaglen, who tackles the central role of the simpleminded informer Gypo Nolan with huge energy and pathos, really deserved the Best Actor Oscar he received.

While Ford's film certainly has moments reminiscent of the expressionist silent cinema of the 1920s (most notably when Gypo becomes entangled in the Wanted poster of the man he has betrayed), the claustrophobic sets and shadowy camerawork seem less the result of a firm controlling purpose than of a failure of imagination.