Dancing with the enemy

Film - Philip Kerr discovers magic in Peru, but fails to fall under Harry Potter's latest spell

On 12 September 1992, an elite unit of Peru's anti-terrorist police (Dincote) raided a residence in a middle-class neighbourhood of Lima, suspecting that the address, operating as a dance studio, was really a safe house for Sendero Luminoso, a Maoist terrorist organisation that had been trying to overthrow the Peruvian government since 1980. On the second floor, the police found a bearded, middle-aged man with the quiet manner and clever conversation of a university professor. He was Abimael Guzman, Sendero's supreme leader, and the most wanted man in Peru for more than a decade.

Five years later, Nicholas Shakespeare published The Dancer Upstairs, a Graham Greene-like novel that was inspired by these events, and which has now been made into an excellent movie by John Malkovich, marking his debut behind the camera.

Filmed in Spain, Portugal and Ecuador, Malkovich's movie, scripted by Shakespeare, is set in a composite South American country and stars Javier Bardem (Before Night Falls) as AgustIn Rejas, an ex-lawyer cop who must put a stop to terrorist activities carried out in the name of Ezequiel, the Messianic rebel leader, or else martial law will be declared. Meanwhile, bored with his wife's Conde-Nast conversation, vanity and political myopia, AgustIn pursues a romantic liaison with his daughter's ballet teacher Yolanda (Laura Morante), unaware of her involvement with the very same terrorists he is trying to apprehend.

The Dancer Upstairs is intelligently scripted, beautifully photographed, nicely paced and well-acted. But it's not without its faults. There's little or no attempt by the book or the movie to penetrate beneath the surface and discover what drives the terrorists. For example, what could persuade a group of apparently innocent schoolgirls suddenly to produce automatic weapons and to assassinate a member of the military government? And what is it about Ezequiel that might make Yolanda believe in the justice of their cause? A few obliquely placed pictures of Mao don't provide enough of an explanation for what takes place in this movie.

Another small criticism concerns the dialogue. With the exception of Oliver Cotton, none of the actors who appear in this otherwise enjoyable movie speak English as a first language. As a result, the dialogue is, at times, so thickly accented that I could have wished for subtitles. Javier Bardem may well have mastered the art of looking exactly like Raul Julia, but if he is to succeed in Hollywood, he will have to master the skill of sounding like him, too. Still, it all makes for an authentically suramericano experience, to the extent that you can almost smell the coffee, cigarettes and garlic sausage on the breath of characters who are doubtless strangers to dental floss and Listerine as much as they are to the consonantal diphthong. Not since Adolfo Celli in BBC TV's ill-fated series The Borgias (in which, incidentally, Cotton played Cesare) have I heard the broadcast English language sound so much like David Bellamy describing a carnivorous plant while chewing a toffee.

Toffee, or the complete lack of it, in the acting department was very much on my mind as I endured nearly three hours of Daniel Radcliffe in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. I know he's just a 13-year-old boy, but I can't help feeling irritated by this infant prodigy. I think it's the way everyone in the film utters Harry Potter's common and unastonishing name with such breathless awe, as if his ethereal root was Jove himself. Yes, I know this is supposed to be ironic, given that the kid looks like a younger version of the Labour minister for pensions, Ian McCartney, the Fireman's Friend; but the irony no longer really works for me, given the youthful wizard's earlier lethal touch (see HP1) and general facility with a sword (HP2). In Superman's day, the wearing of spectacles was enough to denote a lack of obvious heroism, but John Lennon and Michael Caine changed all that 35 years ago. These days, glasses are cool. (Why else would Elton John stop wearing them?) And I rather suspect Harry wears his glasses merely to look more fetching to those masters who have been exiled to the school by Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Reilly-O'Toole. Apart from a rather pointless cameo from Kenneth Branagh and a rather peaky-looking Richard Harris, in truth there was nothing in HP2 that we hadn't already seen in HP1. Watching this interminable apotheosis of one unremarkable boy, my only consolation was knowing the dreadful fate that awaits not just Radcliffe but all of the children in this tiresome movie: an anonymous adulthood.

The Dancer Upstairs (15) and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (PG) are on general release