Christopher Bray - Light relief

Film - Onion domes, berets and the constructivist haircut. By Christopher Bray

Everything Is Il

A pen and paper. Those are the first things you see in Liev Schreiber's adaptation of Jonathan Safran Foer's novel Everything Is Illuminated. Oh, you think, as the pen forms the words "Chapter One", one of those films - the kind so flagrantly aware of its debt to its literary progenitor it's never able to break free and find a new way of telling the story.

Think again. With its re-fulgent fields of sunflowers, its raucously coloured station facades, its drive-by shots of onion domes and its all-round eye for kooky compositions, Schreiber's first picture is a visual feast. Even a motiveless close-up of some soaking dentures looks a treat.

And then there is Elijah Wood as Safran Foer himself - a brilliantined, side-parted vision of innocence save for those icy blue eyes that laser through his Coke-bottle specs. He looks like Clark Kent getting ready to pull on his tights and save the world. Not that Safran Foer is any kind of Superman, although he does put you in mind of another costumed hero. Wood has said he was glad to be offered the part in Everything Is Illuminated because it would give him the chance to put the Lord of the Rings trilogy behind him. From where I was sitting, though, he was still carrying on an awful lot like Frodo Baggins. He might not be travelling across Middle Earth on a mythic quest to the Cracks of Doom, but nor is he quite on the road to nowhere.

To be precise, he is on the road to Trachimbrod, a Ukrainian village whose razing by the Nazis prompted his grandfather's flight to the United States. Safran Foer has come here to pay homage to the land of his origins and to thank the woman who helped his forebear escape. With him are a translator called Alex (Eugene Hutz), a driver called Grandfather (Boris Leskin) and a dog called (and called over and over again to rising gusts of laughter from the audience) Sammy Davis, Jr Jr.

Plot-wise, that's about it. Schreiber has had the good sense to jettison the post-modern, time-travelling trickery of Safran Foer's novel and turn the story into a set of character studies. Alas, some of the characters could do with a bit more study. Wood's Safran Foer, for instance, is a frosty blank incapable of registering the emotional turmoil the film wants to put him through. And while Leskin passes muster when all that is required of him is racist gibes and comical table manners, he gives his part no ballast, no weight to underpin its woes.

Praise be to Hutz, then, who scorches across his debut feature film like a shooting star in the making. The front man of the joyously alarming gypsy rock band Gogol Bordello (they're responsible for the movie's spiky, cimbalom-soused soundtrack), he gives the picture a joshing, punky excitement it doesn't really have a right to. Not the least of Alex's fascinations is the constructivist knock-off atop his head. Is it a haircut that looks like a beret or a beret that looks like a haircut? Don't ask him. As a translator, Alex makes David Davis sound like Demosthenes. After waking Safran Foer by asking him whether he is "manufacturing the zeds", Alex apologises for being "not so premium with English".

Trouble is, the film is hardly premium with sense either. After an hour and a half of Alex's invigorating malapropisms, Schreiber seems to remember he mentioned the Nazis way back when and tries to tie things up with a wilfully tragic denouement. Where did that come from? you ask yourself as the credits roll. Who can say? But my guess is that Schreiber, like Safran Foer before him, was ashamed of having put together a cosy culture-clash comedy and thought to give it some bottom with a spot of designer darkness: not everything is illuminated. No indeed, but at least when Alex is around everything lightens up. Why manufacture zeds around him?

Talking of snoozing, here comes Julian Fellowes's directorial debut, Separate Lies. Emily Watson is Anne Manning, a bored, stay-at-home wife whose only fun is her fling with local nobby no-good Bill Bule (Rupert Everett). Tom Wilkinson is her work-obsessed husband, James, who fails to spot anything awry until their cleaning lady's husband is knocked off his bike and killed. Who could have done this? No prizes for guessing.

Nor, to be fair, was it any less obvious in the Nigel Balchin novel - A Way Through the Wood - on which the film is based, but that book is also one of the great fictional analyses of marriage, an institution it probes with chill, disgusted precision.

The only disgust here is on the face of that fine actor Tom Wilkinson, who never stops looking like a man who can't believe what he has let himself in for. At one point James has to break down in tears over a chance sighting of one of his wife's scar-ves. He seems distraught indeed - like an actor who has seen the rest of the script and knows that it is not through with humiliating him yet.