Show Hide image

Talent that doesn't spoil

Kristin Scott Thomas is austere, while Ed Harris pulls out all the stops

<strong>I've Loved You So

The "spoiler", that morsel of information that can remove in one stroke a film's element of surprise, takes many forms. Voters at the Academy Awards did a nice job of ruining The Crying Game for anyone who hadn't seen it (and stop reading now if that means you) by nominating Jaye Davidson as best supporting actor, thus revealing a twist that nobody - except, one trusts, Jaye Davidson's mum - had seen coming.

Then there was the TV listings page that (spoiler alert!) described Citizen Kane as the story of a man and his sledge. And don't forget the protesters who vented their disgust at Basic Instinct by disclosing the identity of the film's killer to patrons queuing at the box-office. A well-meaning effort, if a redundant one, since most people didn't care whodunit as long as they could witness Sharon Stone uncrossing her legs. Much better if the protesters had simply rustled up some placards that said: "You can't see anything, anyway."

I've Loved You So Long, a French tale of two sisters, and Appaloosa, a nuts-and-bolts Western, both have kinks or surprises, but the manner in which they are presented differs greatly. At the screening I attended of the former, we were asked not to reveal what its secret might be, presumably on pain of receiving a withering look from Kristin Scott Thomas, the film's star. She plays Juliette, who comes to stay in Nancy with her kid sister, éa (Elsa Zylberstein), whom she hasn't seen for 15 years. With ash-grey skin and a cigarette trembling between her bony fingers, Juliette is a picture of austerity, while éa relishes the chaotic household she shares with her husband, their adopted daughters, his mute father, and a cleaner whose habit of breaking everything has earned her the nickname "Katrina", after the hurricane.

So where has Juliette been all these years? Hiding out in the witness protection programme? Training as a go-go dancer at the Ticklish Banana club? Or hosting a show on the QVC shopping channel, thereby combining the obscurity of the former with the unbridled glamour of the latter?

I'm keeping schtum, except to say that the terrible secret on which the story pivots transpires to be not quite so terrible after all, leaving us feeling relieved but rather used and grubby - a not entirely unpleasant sensation, perhaps, for regulars at the Ticklish Banana, but deeply unsatisfying when you're watching a film that purports to be a thoughtful character study.

At least I've Loved You So Long is partly redeemed by its performances. I admit I'm one of those cinemagoers for whom the eternal mystery of the universe is not "Why are we here?" or "What happens when we die?" but "How could Hugh Grant fall for Andie MacDowell in Four Weddings and a Funeral while Kristin Scott Thomas is on the same planet, let alone in the same film?" Thomas is convincingly prickly here, whether refusing to peruse her niece's poetry or puncturing the ego of a young stud, following a mid-afternoon tryst. But from the moment you see her first pinched, resentful smile, you know the picture will dedicate itself to thawing her out. Shame. Still, it's ice while it lasts.

Appaloosa is better. Set in 1880s New Mexico, the film features a craggy, weather-beaten landscape, also known as Ed Harris. He plays Virgil Cole, who rides into a mining community with his sidekick Everett Hitch (Viggo Mortensen in a King Tut beard) to put a vicious, lawless rancher (Jeremy Irons) firmly in his place. The showdowns pan out as expected, but it's the down-time between shoot-outs that is most memorable. While Virgil takes gunslinging duties in his stride, his romance with a widow stops him in his tracks. First, she has him picking out curtains. Then, he must accept a side of her that neither he nor we clever-clogs in the stalls had foreseen. This character would be even more compelling if she wasn't played by Renée Zellweger, who has only two expressions, simper and smirk, at her disposal.

Harris also directed, co-wrote and co-produced Appaloosa, and you can hear him snarling the theme song over the end credits. Dennis Waterman had better look to his laurels: there's a new sheriff in town.

Pick of the week

Unrelated (15)
dir: Joanna Hogg
Brits do Tuscany. Trouble ensues.

Redbelt (15)
dir: David Mamet
Pared-down thriller with Chiwetel Ejiofor as a jiu-jitsu instructor.

The Righteous Kill (15)
dir: Jon Avnet
Thirteen years after Heat, is the De Niro/Pacino pairing still hot?

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2008 issue of the New Statesman, The crash of 2008