This week's new releases tried and tested just for you
3/5 Dir Isabel Coixet US (PG18) Men grow old, but do they really ever grow up? That’s the question posed by this astute adaptation of Philip Roth’s The Dying Animal, in which Ben Kingsley’s suave professor and all-round cultural guru preys on his female class members, but only after they’ve finished their courses with him so as to avoid harassment suits. While businesswoman Patricia Clarkson offers regular companionship, the latest notch on this divorcee’s bed post is graduate student Penélope Cruz, whose beauty leaves him acting like a jealous teenager… not exactly what she’s expecting from the relationship.
Spanish director Isabel Coixet provides elegant Ivy League settings, but what’s most striking is the way she takes a male-dominated story about unashamedly sexist attitudes and turns it on its head to show textbook intellectual Kingsley undone by his underdeveloped emotional insights. Kingsley’s performance does better by the character’s self-satisfied over-confidence than the pain of unexpected vulnerability (in contrast to a less showy but telling turn from academic colleague Dennis Hopper, piercing in its resignation), yet it’s Cruz who’s the fulcrum of the piece.
Credible as an impressionable student under her tutor’s sway, she’s also a complex, exposed presence prompting both Kingsley (and, by extension, the audience) to look beyond the alluring surface and see the multi-faceted individual within. Overall, though, the film falls just short, due in no small part to unimaginative music selections (the same old Erik Satie and Arvo Pärt piano pieces again), which drain its individuality in favour of mere generic arthouse melancholia. Trevor Johnston Dhs85 from Virgin Megastore
4/5 Dir John Patrick Shanley US (PG15) Thou shalt not laugh while watching Doubt but thou shalt have lots of ideas relating to character judgment, self-belief and the conviction that one is right and wrong in the face of evidence or lack of it. The playwright John Patrick Shanley wrote his prize winning play Doubt, which he has now adapted and directed for cinema, during the early stages of the Iraq war, and the shadow of the justifications and assumptions that led to that conflict hang heavily over this austere drama.
That austerity emerges partly from Shanley’s no-nonsense telling and partly from the setting: a Catholic school and its sister church in the Bronx, in New York, in the early ’60s, where fierce Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep, hooded, pale-faced, red-eyed, looking like an evil, hungover sparrow) runs a tight ship in conflict with the warmer demeanour and more liberal attitude of the institution’s priest, the clubbable Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman).
When a younger nun, Sister James (Amy Adams) suspects, on the back of little evidence, that the priest is having an inappropriate relationship with the school’s only black pupil, Donald Miller (Joseph Foster), Aloysius is determined to force Flynn from the school. Is Flynn guilty? Is Aloysius as convinced by Flynn’s guilt as she appears? If not, why does she behave as she does?
There are no easy answers, which is refreshing, and Shanley allows little to get in the way of strong performances and a tight line of argument, even if, in his attempt to embrace the ‘cinematic’ he indulges a few too many shots of storms beating at windows and lightbulbs threatening to fail. Empathy is one of the dramatist’s slyest weapons and Shanley uses it wisely, leading us between our two leads, releasing and suppressing information but never spoon-feeding us. We’re allowed to make up our own minds, both about Flynn’s ‘crime’ and the nature of the debate itself. Dave Calhoun Dhs85 from Virgin Megastore