The Man Who Knew Too Little

WFTB Score: 13/20

The plot: Aptly-named Blockbuster employee ‘Wally’ Ritchie comes to England to visit his brother, but fearing he may disrupt an important dinner party, the brother arranges for him to spend the night with an interactive, improvisational theatre experience that takes place on the streets of London. However, Wally unknowingly stumbles into a deadly plot between bosses of MI5 and the KGB to prolong the Cold War and keep them all in a job.

Although The Man Who Knew Too Little is by no means a one-joke film, your enjoyment of it is likely to be influenced by how willing you are to accept the film’s central joke, that Wally (Bill Murray) takes everything that happens around him to be an act for his benefit, whilst everyone else is involved in deadly espionage. The title is an obvious nod to Hitchcock, but the animated titles are equally reminiscent of Blake Edwards’ Pink Panther series and Wally’s accidental genius is similar to that of Clouseau.

The script deals with Wally’s ignorance very well. He has absolutely no concept of being in danger, so his cool reactions unsettle the powers that be at MI5 and the KGB.

Importantly, what Murray says whilst ‘acting’ and how people react to him never feels forced. The plot moves along at a decent pace and maintains a decent gag rate throughout, although a few jokes go over the top (I’m thinking of the geriatric bondage) and the depiction of Russians by British actors is very stereotyped. The plethora of familiar British faces used to play Brits and Russians occasionally makes the film feel like an extended sit-com episode, but thankfully Bill Murray has the star quality to lift the material whenever he is on-screen.

Those used to Murray’s po-faced, occasionally downright depressed performances in films such as Lost in Translation and The Royal Tenenbaums will find him positively delirious here. Watching Murray bumble happily through Wally’s various scrapes is a little unsettling, but he delivers his role with a nonchalance that other comic leads such as Steve Martin or Leslie Nielsen would have struggled to match. Peter Gallagher is competent as his exasperated brother Jimmy, whilst Richard Wilson and Nicholas Woodeson are entertainingly baffled as the secret agency heads.

Joanne Whalley is given little to do but, since the script demands it, falls in love with Murray’s klutz to the best of her ability. Perhaps she looks confused because her comic role – the mistress of a cabinet minister – is oddly similar to the straight role she played in Scandal. Though she is fine, the payoff to the film (that they end up together should surprise nobody) takes the audience for granted, and the final scene feels improvised – not, in this instance, a term of praise.

With its Anglo-American slant, The Man Who Knew Too Little seeks to plough the same furrow as A Fish Called Wanda; and while this film never even threatens to reach those heights, it’s a cute comedy with a brave conceit and lively performances. And whilst only the Russian dance music is likely to stay with you after the film’s finished, you’re unlikely to ever be bored whilst it’s on.

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Strictly Ballroom

WFTB Score: 16/20

The plot: His prize-winning chances ruined by an insistence on trying new moves, impetuous young dancer Scott Hastings has only three weeks to find a new partner to dance Latin in the Pan-Pacific Grand Prix. The last choice in his mind, and those looking after his interests, is Fran: plain, clumsy and a beginner. However, Fran is determined to earn her chance and the pair find they share more than just a love of dance.

We all know about ballroom dancing now, of course. Thanks to Strictly Come Dancing and its international spin-offs, dancing is officially cool. In 1992, however, ordinary Come Dancing was an esoteric late-night show watched only by a handful, and Luhrmann’s film must have presented an exotic and alien world to the majority of the public.

Initially presented in mockumentary fashion, though this is quickly dropped, Strictly Ballroom’s hero is Scott Hastings (Paul Mercurio), a flashy dancer who refuses to stick to established steps, much to the annoyance of partner Liz (Gia Carides, screaming for all she’s worth) and overbearing head honcho of the Australian dance world, Barry Fife (Bill Hunter, superb). Much like Dirty Dancing, ugly duckling Fran (Tara Morice) is the novice thrown into the fray.

The exposition feels as though it’s making fun of ballroom dancing, a preposterous whirl of extraordinary, garish costumes and big teeth and hair. The comedy is camp and broad, presenting a lot of caricatures but not many characters; and as far as the plot goes, you just know that Fran will lose the glasses, fix the hair, put a bit of slap on and look just fine.

But from this unpromising beginning something extraordinary emerges. Scott dances alone, then trains Fran to dance the rumba; in both these sequences the joy of performance is brought to the screen with brilliant clarity, and the rumba that the pair perform against a curtained backdrop is beautiful.

Mercurio is a great dancer, Morice an effective partner, and Luhrmann shows his love of dance in every frame. From their first dance the atmosphere builds and builds, through the paso doble training sequence to the stunning and emotional final dance. The plot machinations continue, with the old guard singled out as the villains, but these incidents simply serve to move the film along in entertaining fashion between dances.

Naturally, there are niggles: the subject matter will always be anathema to certain kinds of filmgoers; it’s rather too handy, too, that Fran’s family are expert paso dancers (why is she even going to the classes?). Furthermore, some of the comedy, like the dresses, remains over-bright. But these are all minor complaints, and even the cartoonish sequence explaining Scott’s father’s background is funny in its way, although it appears to be a relic of the earlier stage production.

In a refreshing change to established formula, the climax of Strictly Ballroom doesn’t see Scott and Fran walking off with the prize, but with the whole audience dancing. The message is that, essentially, competition doesn’t matter; the real prize is self-expression over rigid rules and discipline, a theme that Luhrmann has revisited again and again. If you want an experience that celebrates the joy of dance, and a nice little love story to boot, you should revisit this film again and again too.

Carry on Constable

WFTB Score: 10/20

The plot: London’s thin blue line is stretched to the limit by a ‘flu epidemic, forcing one station to bring in a rum bunch of raw recruits. As the rookies get themselves into a series of disastrous scrapes and singularly fail to keep law or order, the put-upon sergeant – already fed up with his Inspector – wonders whether he’d be better off with an empty station.

When ‘flu hits the cop shop run by fish-loving Inspector Mills (Eric Barker), he puts the pressure on Sergeant Wilkins (Sid James) to come up with a solution, threatening to transfer him sharpish if he fails. Unfortunately, the solution that presents itself at the station’s front desk is less than promising: superior Stanley Benson (Kenneth Williams), convinced that phrenology holds the key to identifying criminal types; superstitious, cannily-named astrologer/astrologist Charlie Constable (Kenneth Connor); and upper-crust Tom Potter (Leslie Phillips), a man with an eye for the ladies but not necessarily much of a knack for policing.

The troublesome trio are joined by budgie-fancying Special Constable Gorse (Charles Hawtrey) and super-efficient WPC Gloria Passworthy (Joan Sims), who makes Sgt Moon (Hattie Jacques) suspicious and gives Constable Constable some very unprofessional ideas – so long as she’s a Virgo, that is.

As the new recruits are put up in their compact lodgings (the cells!) and put through their paces, they prove to be as much of a hindrance to Wilkins as a help, with Benson and Gorse dragging up, Some Like It Hot-style, to catch shoplifters and Potter spending more time giving relationship advice than preventing crime. But there are a bunch of bank robbers hiding out in the area, and with the pressure on to bring them – or anyone – to book, the new recruits spy a chance to prove to Mills that they’re not completely useless.

You could, if you squint in a certain way, see Carry On Constable as a precursor to Police Academy; however, though the plot is essentially similar, the films are worlds apart in their sensibilities, as indeed is this fledgling effort (number 4 in the series) to the later Carry On films. Other than a few tantalising glimpses of young lady flesh, and rather more male nudity, the comedy is of a much more genteel nature than the series’ 1970s efforts, which is a double-edged sword: there are sequences that come across as merely daft rather than funny, and a few that don’t work at all (mostly the dog-walking larks); but on the upside, the amount of care that writer Norman Hudis has put in to creating lively, funny and credible characters is something that Williams, James, Connor et al would surely have killed for in the later efforts.

Williams has an absolute ball as the snooty officer who thinks he knows everything but is constantly made to look foolish, whilst Leslie Phillips, admittedly playing to type, enjoys cosying up to Shirley Eaton’s confused young lover and anyone else in a skirt. Sid James, in his first Carry On (and pre-Babs chasing), is marvellously down-to-earth and Hawtrey shows just how good he could be before his parts were written around his drinking: ‘Priceless innuendo, how witty!’ he observes joyously during a raucous parade. On top of these game performances and those of Jacques, Sims and others, there are wonderful cameo appearances from the likes of Joan Hickson as a friendly old soak and Esma Cannon as (what else?) an old dear Benson unwillingly drags across the road.

Impressively, the film also manages to squeeze in a half-decent action story as by pure luck the novices stumble onto the robbers’ hideaway; plus, there’s a nicely cynical attitude towards work hierarchy (the inspector takes all the credit and none of the blame) and a clutch of rather sweet matches made during the happy ending – happy for everyone, that is, except Barker’s Mills, the authority figure who gets the short straw and is perhaps the least effective presence, though it’s equally likely that I’m not familiar enough with Eric Barker’s considerable body of work to appreciate his comparatively mannered style.

In my callow youth I associated older films, especially those in black and white, with a sort of corny, unsophisticated comedy (possibly based on snippets of Will Hay and Norman Wisdom films). Having seen movies such as Passport to Pimlico, The Ladykillers and Alastair Sim’s Scrooge, I now know what a simplistic view that was. I wouldn’t claim that Carry On Constable is the equal of any of those British greats; neither has it the lively spirit of the series in its mid- to late-sixties stride. However, it is charming whilst being winkingly daring and the cast’s energy knocks spots off the lethargic, lazy motions of the Carry Ons’ later years.

Bullets over Broadway

WFTB Score: 17/20

The plot: Uptight playwright David Shayne writes the play of his life, but can only get it produced by way of a deal with the shady Nick Valenti. He puts up the money, on condition that his dumb moll Olive gets a part. As if this wasn’t torture enough, Shayne has to endure the interference of Olive’s ‘minder’ Cheech, though distractions are provided by the play’s domineering leading lady.

Woody Allen’s prodigious output has not always been accompanied by prodigious variety, and at first glance this story of a struggling playwright trying to put on a Broadway show may appear overly familiar. However, as the film is set in Prohibition-era New York and the part of the writer is taken by John Cusack (Allen himself does not appear in the film), Bullets Over Broadway feels different from most of Allen’s contemporary efforts and remarkably fresh.

Cusack is David Shayne, living in a humble apartment with long-suffering girlfriend Ellen (Mary-Louise Parker), determined that his new play Gods of our Fathers will be produced exactly as he sees it. But there is an insurmountable obstacle in the lack of money needed to put the play on, until his agent cuts a deal with mob kingpin Nick Valenti (Joe Viterelli) to fund the show. The only catch is, Valenti’s girlfriend Olive (Jennifer Tilly), a showgirl with a sharp tongue but not the sharpest tool in the box, has to have a part in the play.

The annoyance of this compromise is exacerbated by the muscular appearance of Cheech (Chazz Palmintieri), a thuggish hood sent to watch over Olive; but even though she turns out to be predictably terrible, the rest of the cast show promise: Eden Brent (Tracey Ullman) and her dog are both small and perky, whilst Jim Broadbent’s talented Warner Purcell is unable to resist his penchant for snacking or, disastrously, the attentions of Olive.

But more than these, fading star Helen Sinclair (Dianne Wiest) overcomes her initial distaste for the role to embrace the play – and the playwright. At the start, Cheech is an unwelcome presence at rehearsals, but he makes valid criticisms and reveals himself to be an instinctive playwright upon whom David eventually comes to lean on for advice and dialogue. Even so, he is disgusted by Cheech’s solution to the Olive ‘problem.’

The tight plot of Bullets Over Broadway is served up with convincing period detail, a predictably well-chosen jazz score, and a script packed to the gills with subtle, snappy jokes – as well as a number of very broad ones, such as the reveal of a beefed-up Warner on the Broadway stage. More than this, though, the film sparkles due to the performances: Ullman and Broadbent are entertaining, Tilly is perfectly cast as the squeaky, petulant Olive and reveals a talent for comedy, and Cusack is a funny and energetically jumpy substitute for Woody himself. Dianne Wiest commands centre stage and turns in a flawless performance as an old soak of an actress miraculously given a career-saving part, a diva in every respect of her life and hilarious when silencing the entreaties of her lover (“Don’t speak!”).

To be very, very critical, there is an argument to be made that the resolution of the film is a little rushed and predictable compared to the invention shown by the rest of it, in respect of Chazz’s treatment by Valenti and the undercooked relationship between David and Ellen (she gets her revenge by sleeping with Rob Reiner’s failed playwright Sheldon Flender); but in general the film feels exactly the right size and perfectly formed.

Allen is known for the analytical, neurotic nature of his films, and if you want to look for it, there is much in Bullets Over Broadway to inform pretentious discussions about the timeless value of art versus the value of a single human life, embodied in the brilliant but psychopathic Cheech (superbly played by Palmintieri). However, the film works because these themes are just themes, allowed to do their thing in the background whilst the main story drives on. The story is funny whilst retaining a palpable sense of threat (reminiscent of Some Like It Hot), and the effervescent script and marvellous acting mean this ranks amongst Allen’s best.

Mr and Mrs Smith

WFTB Score: 6/20

The plot: John and Jane Smith share a house and a five (or six) year marriage, but not the true nature of their day jobs: they are both assassins, for rival agencies. When they are assigned the same hit, their secret lives are uncovered and their marriage becomes a deadly game of cat-and-mouse.

There are certain types of film that will always get the benefit of the doubt, round these parts anyway: low-budget projects, movies by new, young filmmakers or those featuring up-and-coming actors, for example. You look over rough edges and the odd naff scene because you can see enthusiasm for the art, a desire to succeed, in every frame.

Mr and Mrs Smith is clearly not one of those films, combining as it does A-list stars, a major studio, a hot director and a high-concept idea. Gorgeous Angelina Jolie, handsome Brad Pitt, The Bourne Identity’s Doug Liman and a shedload of guns: It’s sexy, that’s what that is! Like Grosse Pointe Blank but with incredibly beautiful people, like True Lies only they’re both at it! Sexy sexy sexy!

Except it’s not, not at all. And the reason why is that high concept: ‘married assassins oblivious to each others’ jobs’ sounds great as a seven word pitch, but try writing a well-plotted script around it and everything falls apart. The film starts with John and Jane Smith’s marriage in trouble, and as they head out separately for the evening we are meant to be thinking of infidelity; but we already know they are killers, if not from the massive publicity that brought us to the film in the first place, then from the early flashback to Colombia where they initially meet.

Five (or six – and doesn’t that joke get old quickly?) years later, Pitt’s first hit is in an Irish bar. We don’t know why he’s doing it, but he has to kill a man called Lucky, and he does it by charming his way into a poker game with Lucky’s henchmen, one of whom has the most despicable Irish accent you have ever heard. The hit complete, he returns home to Jolie who has just completed a murder in fetish gear. She asks where he’s been and explains he’s been to a Sports bar where he ‘got lucky.’ Ba-dum-tish!

This is the quality of joke throughout. Clearly the film is pitched as an action romp rather than a black comedy, and as such belly laughs are hardly to be expected; but the gags are lame when they come, so Liman relies on Brad Pitt’s fame and rugged charm to impress. It even gets as low as one character sporting a Fight Club T-shirt. See what we’ve done? Knowing, eh?! Oh, fff…for God’s sake, go away.

Laziness seeps out everywhere. Jane Smith says she was an orphan and that the man who gave him away at the wedding was a paid actor. Has her ‘family’ never been referred to or spoken about subsequently, let alone been paid a visit? You can’t imagine the deceit lasting five (or…whatever) days, let alone years. Over-analysis maybe, but symptomatic of a film that is so busy being cool that it completely sacrifices coherence. Lots of gadgetry, loads of busy, buzzy music, but very little sense.

The real problem, however, isn’t sloppiness. Once the Smiths’ secrets are out, their first instincts are to kill each other – well, Jane mostly wants to kill John, cries when she thinks she might have actually done it, then finding she hasn’t, wants to kill him again. On screen this really isn’t much fun, partially because you don’t know who to support (unlike Bourne, one isn’t the hero and the other the villain); but mostly because watching a couple trying to murder one another is rather unsettling.

Even if you enjoy shotguns blasting holes in the walls, and fridges being riddled with machine-gun fire, to the funky accompaniment of Express Yourself, watching a man punching and kicking a woman to pieces is simply unpleasant. It’s not funny, it’s not dramatic, it’s just nasty; and the fact that it gets them all revved up for sex is just insulting.

It comes as little surprise that, post sex, the Smiths team up against the world in a fight for survival, and no surprise at all that this fight features gargantuan explosions, car chases and the shooting of dozens of black-clad, armed-but-useless agents. There is next to no explanation of who these agents are, who they work for, or why they need Mr & Mrs S dead. Or why, following the big climactic scene, everything is perfectly safe again.

And then you have Vince Vaughn’s Eddie, one of the few supporting characters with human characteristics, in so much as Vaughn bothers to project them. In Liman’s Swingers, Vaughn was new and his arrogance was fresh and funny, but time and again since he has displayed the antithesis of range, reprising the same “eye for the ladies” shtick in every role and only confirming that sleaze does not become more appealing with age. You could argue that the role of Eddie requires nothing of Vaughn: he delivers that, and less.

Okay, so I didn’t like the film much, but will make one concession: there is decent chemistry between the leads, which for a while, at least, served them well in ‘real’ life, such as theirs was; and if you like pretty people, showy gunplay, stylish violence, technically proficient explosions and the like, you may be able to stare at this film and gawp. Just don’t try to do anything more than rub its shiny surface; you’re likely to put your finger through and discover that, on the inside, it’s completely empty.

Choke

WFTB Score: 7/20

The plot: Victor Mancini tries to work through his sex addiction at the same time as he seeks answers about his past (and his father) from his mentally-absent mother, whose care Victor funds in a very unusual way. Doctor Paige Marshall proposes an equally unusual solution to some of his problems, but Victor’s suddenly unable to rise to the occasion – and it doesn’t help that his mum’s diary appears to suggest that he’s at least half-divine!

If sex addiction has ever seemed at all sexy to you, one look at Victor Mancini (Sam Rockwell) will put you off for life. Victor’s sexual compulsions are causing havoc at his Addicts Anonymous meetings, and although he wants to take the next step, it’s proving difficult since he’s got an awful lot on his plate. His mother Ida (Anjelica Huston) is spending her last days in a $3,000-a-month care home, a fee Victor can’t hope to pay as a tour guide ‘historical interpreter’ at a Colonial theme park, so to fill the gap he pretends to choke in restaurants, subsequently leeching off his rescuers with sob stories.

Not that it’s doing Ida much good. Having always been an unpredictable firebrand (seen in flashback, with Jonah Bobo as the young Victor), she’s now losing her mind, constantly thinking Victor is a lawyer and mistaking Victor’s friend Denny (Brad William Henke) for her son. When facility Doctor Paige Marshall (Kelly Macdonald) offers to help, Victor’s gratified, though Paige’s methods are eccentric: first of all, she suggests stem-cell research, presenting herself as the potential mother of the saviour child. Secondly, her translation of Ida’s Italian diary suggests that far from being the result of a fling, Victor is actually cloned from a sacred relic, namely Jesus’ Holy foreskin. With information like that doing the rounds, no wonder Victor suddenly finds it hard to perform.

Having been knocked out by Fight Club – I still think it’s one of the great films of the century (so far) – I was keen to either read a Chuck Palahniuk novel or watch something else based on his works. Having watched Choke, I’m almost more determined to seek out his books; because I have no real idea whether Choke is a poor adaptation compared to Fight Club, or if David Fincher elevated ordinary material miles above its true level. In part, the two works are recognisably by the same author – the therapy groups, Ida’s semi-random anti-social acts, the incessant narration – but whereas Fight Club told a scorching, disturbing yet relevant tale, Choke – on screen at least – suffocates on its vexatious complexity.

Specifically, the plot just gives Victor far too much to worry about. He’s a sex addict, fine; he’s trying to cope with a mentally-ill, fading mother, okay; he’s using the time he has left to find out who his father is, well, that sort of fits; he can’t perform with Paige because he might be emotionally involved with her, alright, that’s plenty to be getting on with; he feigns choking in restaurants for financial and emotional gain, you’re starting to lose me; he helps Denny (Henke) and his stripper girlfriend build an enigmatic stone structure and incidentally may be a clone – sorry, half-clone – of Jesus, no, stop. Please stop.

I enjoy a bit of weird as much as the next man, but Choke spreads its oddness out in so many directions at once (I’ve not even mentioned the various intrigues at Victor’s workplace) that nothing about it feels solid or substantial. Because of this, when the twist arrives in the final act, the reaction is not one of amazement (or incomprehension, which I’ll freely admit was my initial reaction to Fight Club’s twist), but ‘Well, something had to be wrong, ‘cos none of it made much sense.’ Individually, bits of the plot work: the sex addicts’ group is treated in an adult fashion, and the scenes involving Ida and Victor as both adult and child are both instructive and involving. However, too much of the film feels as though it’s enacting scenes without the slightest clue of how (or if) it all fits together.

Which brings me to my second problem. Choke clearly deals with a number of serious issues; so why did I feel as though I was watching a variation of Sideways, with horndogs replacing wine buffs? Most of the problem, I think, lies in Nathan Larson’s plinky music, which constantly and unhelpfully underscores that what’s going on is not gritty and dark but quirky, light-hearted even. The story, whilst often funny, is ultimately far from comic and director Clark Gregg doesn’t find anything like the right tone.

It’s a shame, too, since he’s given at least three fine performances: Sam Rockwell is magnetic, though (as always) rarely sympathetic; Huston does brilliantly to span the decades and remain the same devious, unbalanced woman; and Kelly Macdonald, who does all she can to bring credibility to an extremely far-fetched part. There are also a number of nice touches: Victor mentally undressing people whether he wants to or not, or his assignation with Heather Burns’ demanding role-player.

I do Choke no favours by comparing it to Fight Club and viewed in isolation it deserves credit for being different, for daring to tell a difficult tale in forthright fashion. That said, Victor never adds up to a whole person and Choke doesn’t add up to a whole movie. Maybe – just maybe – the book makes more sense.

The Man Who Cried

WFTB Score: 12/20

The plot: When a hard-up Jewish farmer leaves Russia to seek his fortune in America, he leaves behind a young daughter who is forced to flee herself when her life is threatened. She ends up in England, acquires the name Suzie and with her talent for singing sets off for Paris as a staging post to America. However, in Paris Suzie befriends carefree Lola and mysterious gypsy Cesar, both of whom will have a profound effect on her life – though the invasion of the Nazis ruins all their plans.

Russia, 1927, and a devoted father (Oleg Yankovskiy) makes the heart-breaking decision to leave his farm and beloved daughter Fegele (Claudia Lander-Duke) at home whilst he heads for the promised land of America. Unbeknownst to him, the village is soon after cleared of Jews and with a photograph of her father her only possession, Fegele boards a ship, not (as she thinks) bound for The States but for England, where she is taken in, given the name Suzie and subjected to the taunts of unsympathetic schoolchildren.

Suzie can sing, however, and this talent serves her well as an adult (played by Christina Ricci) when she comes to find a career, heading for the gaudy clubs of Paris as a first step to finding her father in America; in Paris, she befriends Russian dancer Lola (Cate Blanchett) and the two become room-mates. Suzie and Lola meet two very different men: Lola, looking for a rich man to look after her, works her way into the affections of Italian singer Dante (John Turturro), who gets them both work in the opera run by Felix Perlman (Harry Dean Stanton), whilst Suzie finds she prefers the company of fellow outcast Cesar (Johnny Depp), a handsome but poor gypsy who provides opera horses.

World War II begins, threatening each of the characters in different ways, and as Dante knows about Suzie’s Jewish heritage she is more vulnerable than most. Forced to leave Cesar, Suzie resumes the long journey towards her father, suffering further tragedy on the way; and even when father and daughter are reunited, the event is accompanied by new and unwelcome surprises.

As it shows Fegele/Suzie’s tough, tragedy-filled childhood, and proceeds to contrast Lola’s desire to climb socially with Suzie’s (equally doomed) quest for meaningful love and real belonging, The Man Who Cried reveals itself to be an attractive, lyrical film, paying close attention to the creation of both period and atmosphere. The latter is largely created through music, and from the difficult tunes of the gypsies to Suzie’s plaintive rendering (as both child and adult) of Dido’s Lament from Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, the film is sure-footed in terms of its score, vital given the importance that music has throughout the story, not least in Dante’s defiant, then collaborative, singing.

In their supporting roles, Blanchett and Turturro are very good at playing out their relationship of convenience – he gets sex, she gets material comforts – and the whole film is carried along by the theme of daughters looking for fathers or father figures, Potter directing with a detachment that allows the characters’ emotions to speak for themselves rather than being accentuated by artificial tricks. Particularly effecting is one of the film’s very few comic moments, also a moment of pathos as Dante and Suzie become the sole remaining performers at the opera, playing to an almost empty house.

Unfortunately, two major things hamper the viewer from becoming involved more fully in Suzie’s story. Firstly, her relationship with Cesar – an illiterate, taciturn man – fails to convince, not necessarily because of any fault of Depp’s but because the part just isn’t solid enough. It involves a lot of stares and a bit of sex, but for the relationship to truly mean something it should have had a climax, a consequence, a surprise – even something akin to Titanic would have been nice. Yes, Depp is a man who cries, but his and Suzie’s parting doesn’t feel sufficiently dreadful, when he is going off to fight for his life and she to remember him forever in a distant land.

And this is the second point; talented though she is, Christina Ricci doesn’t get under the skin of her role. Passing over the complications of portraying an English-educated Russian Jew (in her remarkably few lines of dialogue she goes for a plain, prim English accent), Ricci’s Suzie is an observer of all the goings-on, including the deportation of her Jewish landlady, but none of the traumatic events in her life (‘coming of age’, for example, or the death of Lola on the voyage to America) get built into her character, and at the end of the film she is just a child happy to see her father and sad to see him dying.

I don’t think her child-like appearance is necessarily a bad thing, though she is a good deal shorter than the other actors; however, as Ricci plays Suzie the last scene could have been filmed the same day as her first, and since she seems unchanged by her experiences, the viewer is entitled to wonder why he or she should be particularly bothered about them.

I’m not sure Ricci was miscast so much as misdirected, just as I believe Depp made as much as he could out of Cesar (there is the other consideration that Depp and Ricci had previously worked together on Sleepy Hollow and found the intimate scenes distressing, which may or may not show). Whatever, Sally Potter must take as much blame for failing to draw out a central element of her own story as she should take credit for making an otherwise thoughtful and beautiful film with an unusual but effective female sensibility. Worth watching just to hear Dido’s Lament, and though it’s flawed in many respects, it is for the most part fascinatingly flawed.