Mark Kermode - The devil's work

Film - Hollywood may cause despair, but Britain offers hope. By Mark Kermode

Exorcist: The Begi

Several months ago, I declared that Frank Oz's dismal high-camp remake of The Stepford Wives was shaping up as the worst Hollywood film of the year. At that point, however, I hadn't seen Exorcist: The Beginning, a woebegone prequel to the classic 1970s shocker that has the dubious distinction of being remade before it was even released. Having commissioned art-house darling Paul Schrader to direct a film about the adventures of the exorcist Father Merrin in Africa in the 1940s, Hollywood producers deemed the results boring, canned the entire movie and started again from scratch with action-hack Renny Harlin at the helm.

The result is a remake (or should that be "pre-make"?) of a prequel that is by turns staggeringly dull and jaw-droppingly awful. It is an abomination that will leave viewers cursing and raving in the manner of one possessed by demons, and whose very existence goes some way to proving that there is no God after all. Theological highlights include a busty former Bond girl in full Linda Blair make-up screaming hilarious obscenities at a clearly bemused Stellan Skarsgard (who landed the thankless task of playing Father Merrin in both versions of Exorcist: The Beginning), and wobbly computer-generated hyenas prowling the site of a buried Byzantine church that apparently marks the spot where Satan fell to earth.

"God is not here today," runs the script's recurrent tag line, and on this evidence I see little reason to disagree. Harlin musters all the intellectual rigour that characterised such contemplative earlier works as Die Hard 2 and Cutthroat Island, but despite the explosive dreadfulness of it all, the overriding atmosphere is one of suffocating boredom. If this is what modern culture has descended to, then the sooner the Antichrist arrives to destroy the earth and all its inhabitants, the better.

While Hollywood may be giving us cause for despair, the London Film Festival has been proving that British film-makers at least are enjoying a particularly fertile period of creativity. The festival kicked off in fine style with Mike Leigh's Vera Drake, a bold, brave, heartfelt drama about abortion in 1950s Britain, which combines weighty emotional clout with intelligent political insight. Imelda Staunton shines in the title role as the salt-of-the-earth soul who "helps young girls in trouble", thereby incurring the wrath of the law.

Neither preachy nor polemical, Leigh's quietly radical film sensitively explores the iniquities of a society in which a woman's right to choose is defined by her ability to pay. While the privileged few receive expert medical care at the cost of a hundred guineas, Vera's clients are forced to take their problems underground, with potentially life-threatening results. Among the sturdy ensemble cast, Phil Davis stands out in a terrifically sympathetic role as Vera's stoically loving husband, while rising star Eddie Marsan (who made a significant impression in the underrated Gangster No 1) once again performs wonders with an essentially slight supporting role. Most rewardingly, Leigh appears to have outgrown the patronising misanthropy of yore: an abundance of human kindness radiates throughout the movie, despite the increasingly grim subject matter. It's a terrific piece of work, thoroughly deserving of the top prize it landed at Venice, and destined to find an enthusiastic audience, one hopes, when it opens here in the New Year.

Equally praiseworthy is Roger Michell's Enduring Love, an adaptation of an allegedly "unfilmable" novel by Ian Mc-Ewan that emerges on screen as a hauntingly gripping psychological thriller- cum-twisted love story. Opening with a breathtakingly cinematic sequence in which a stray hot-air balloon crash-lands in a field, Enduring Love explores the emotional repercussions that engulf the bystanders who are unwittingly drawn into an unfolding tragedy. After his impressive work on The Mother (another British film that received less than its fair share of attention), Michell again proves himself the master of the emotional screen space, dramatising what is essentially an internal narrative using architectural framing intelligently, and letting the pictures speak for themselves. Top marks, too, to Daniel Craig, Rhys Ifans and Samantha Morton as the three lost souls trapped in a destructive triangulation of love, guilt and obsession.

Meanwhile, the director of Trainspotting, Danny Boyle, has followed up the adult horror of his modern zombie movie 28 Days Later with the family-friendly whimsy of Millions, an exotic parable about two young boys who find a sack of sterling on the eve of the UK's conversion to the euro. A bizarre Roald Dahl-style fantasy replete with hosts of saints who appear in terrifically earthly form, Millions is an admirably contrary work that may baffle some viewers, but stands as a testament to Boyle's refreshing refusal to play by the rules. He remains one of Britain's most unpredictable talents, and for that we should offer three hearty cheers.

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