Two distinctive British directors offer divergent tales of star-crossed lovers this week, one delightfully down-to-earth, the other with its head firmly in the clouds. In Ae Fond Kiss, which takes its title from a Robert Burns poem about the aching relinquishment of love, the stalwart neorealist Ken Loach documents the fiery fallout of a Romeo-and-Juliet-style romance between an Irish Catholic and a Glaswegian Muslim.
When the wannabe club-owner Casim Khan falls for Roisin Hanlon, a music teacher from his kid sister's school, he invokes the wrath of his shopkeeper father, who is already building a spacious extension in which to house eligible cousin Jasmine, to whom Casim is promised. Meanwhile, independent spirit Roisin finds her turbulent neighbourhood priest so appalled by the prospect of her living in sin with "any Tom, Dick or Mohammed" that he scuppers her promotion at the local Catholic school. Are the couple prepared to abandon their careers, families and religions on the basis of a possibly fleeting passion? Or will they both conclude that there are more important things in life than "true love" after all?
While the subject of cross-cultural romance may not be strikingly original, the great triumph of Ae Fond Kiss (which completes an unofficial "West Scotland Trilogy" with My Name is Joe and Sweet Sixteen) is the boundless joy, empathy and even-handedness that Loach brings to the material. Unlike his more celebratedly cynical contemporary Mike Leigh, Loach has always seemed able to listen to the demands of his characters (played here by a largely unknown cast) in a manner that allows each to speak with an authentic voice, rather than mouthing mere dramatic contrivances. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the person of Tariq Khan, the gruff patriarch played by "chartered accountant and radio personality" Ahmad Riaz, who veers from the comic (wiring up his news-stand to ward off peeing dogs) to the intolerant (he loftily forbids his daughter Tahara from attending Edinburgh University) to the tragically sympathetic. When Tariq breaks down in tears at the loss of "my only son", it is impossible not to feel the weight of cultural baggage that has brought this once proud man to such humbling despair.
Nor do the pleas of Casim's sister for Roisin to "leave my brother" for the sake of their family fall upon deaf ears - at least, not as far as the audience is concerned. Indeed, the real miracle of Ae Fond Kiss is that, no matter how much we want this couple to be together (a tribute to the utterly convincing intimacy of Eva Birthistle and newcomer Atta Yaqub), we can't help wondering whether it would have been better if they had never met - an ambiguity that the bitter-sweet denouement sensibly preserves beneath the veil of a "happy ending".
All these subtle shades of drama, comedy and astute social observation are terrifically handled by Loach, who reaffirms his reputation as one of Britain's most reliably honest, insightful and entertaining film-makers.
Altogether less sure-footed is Code 46, a globe-trotting vision of a dystopian future from the erratic wunderkind Michael Winterbottom, whose unruly oeuvre includes the grim literary tragedy of Jude and the beezer pop satire of 24 Hour Party People. Based on an overly ambitious script by Frank Cottrell Boyce, this confused neo-noir thriller posits an Orwellian world in which the incestuous genetics of cloning have rendered certain seemingly innocent romantic entanglements illegal. Thus a brief (but apparently "destined") fling between two genetically intimate stran-gers threatens to descend in- to Greek tragedy, prompting memory wipes, aversion viruses and other such futuristic fancies.
While Cottrell Boyce's script often seems wilfully oblique, and Winterbottom's direction favours "magic moments" over long-term coherence, the real problem with Code 46 is the abject mismatching of its central players. Although British actress Samantha Morton seems in sync with Winterbottom's off-kilter world-view, poor old Tim Robbins is left wandering around like a somnambulist stooge who accidentally bumbled into the wrong movie - you half expect him to grab a rock ham-mer and start tunnelling his way back into the prison cell of The Shawshank Redemption (which, coincidentally, is now doing the rounds on a tenth-anni- versary re-release).
In a story in which the inexplicable affection of two characters is supposed to transcend barriers of time and space (there is much mumbo-jumbo about the dreamlike nature of their relationship), the utter lack of chemistry between Robbins and Morton has genuinely tragic consequences. Perhaps that explains why Winterbottom opted for the spectacle of hard-core sex in his next film, Nine Songs, which scandalised critics at Cannes this year. At least the intimacy therein is demonstrably visible. In Code 46, it is notable only by its absence.