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4th March, 2002

I've spent the evening watching an excellent film called The Third Miracle. (Watched a daft Jackie Chan piece last night: Mr Nice Guy, made by the Chinese in Melbourne, with a rather awfully hammy Aussie cast - but then, Jackie, (who retains his own name in the movie even though he's a chef [HA!]) is a big ham anyway, so it's all par for the course. The piece is only an excuse for lots of crashing and bashing, all of it superbly choreographed and a major demolition job of a large house at the end. There are lots of crazy bits of humour, and impossible actions, and innumerable villains who are as indestructible as Jackie himself. The out-takes were fun: the nastiest villain of all, the biggest scariest feller was fighting with Jackie, and the latter slipped. Suddenly this big villain melts and picks Jackie up like he's picking up a little baby. And in other out-takes the stunt men all rushed around Chan when he hurt himself - which he must do with great frequency.)

Anyway, back to The Third Miracle, which features Ed Harris and Anne Heche, and is agnieska hollanddirected by Agnieska Holland. Harris is one of my favourite actors and never puts a foot wrong: even in a villainous role he has an

integrity that many actors lack. You always have the feeling that this is a guy you could trust in real life, whatever role he may be playing in a movie. I first remember him coming to my notice in Abyss: it was the wonderful combination of physicality, vulnerability and real manhood that impressed. And he's always brought that to his roles. Strange, isn't it, that actors real selves do penetrate their film roles: I wouldn't trust Arnold Schwarzenegger if you paid me, or Danny de Vito, or Adam Sandler, yet Ed Harris and Tom Arnold, for example, come across as people of integrity. Perhaps I'm wrong about this, but I have a suspicion I'm right.  Harrison Ford would probably fit in the latter category too, although I'm not entirely sure (!)

The Third Miracle is about a priest who's obviously had a crisis of faith (he's hardly an agnostic, as one reviewer called him). It's partly been brought about by his having to be the man who investigates so-called miraculous events, mostly because his church doesn't want them to turn into cults - a fair-enough reason. He's had a real hassle with one situation where he came out being called the miracle-killer, although this flashback sequence isn't the clearest in the movie. And now he's been told to investigate an annual event where a statue weeps blood on the anniversary of the death of a pious and loving woman. The effect this woman has had on people varies enormously: her daughter, played by Heche felt abandoned, the girl who's at the centre of a miracle has become a prostitute (but not, it turns out because of the woman herself, who did care for her); and finally, we discover, a young German soldier who saw the woman as a child pray for a miracle - that bombs dropping on a village would not hit it (they turned into doves and pigeons!) - has become a priest himself and now, as an archbishop many years later, is playing the devil's advocate against the woman's possible elevation to sainthood.

But that's just the story. The depth of the film is in the way in which faith is viewed and held or not held, and struggled with, and whether doubts are a valid thing, and whether some people have a gift of faith which just doesn't go away. Some of the reviewers have seen it, surprisingly, as a cynical movie. In fact, I felt it was a valuable movie in terms of looking at how we live with a faith in a world that combines much force against faith. It's honest in its approach, and doesn't go for the obvious - the possibility that the priest and the daughter might make love at one point is taken very seriously. But the fact that they don't isn't a cop-out - nor are they 'allowed' to as characters just because it's the norm in movies these days. And the toughest characters have questioning hearts, not stony ones.

2nd march, 2002

It was a rainy Saturday when we woke, and so we stayed in bed for some time, rather than getting up to finish the painting round the doors and windows. Always a great job to put off. Celia suggested we go and see Iris, since every other time we've wanted to go it's already been finished for the day. It was on at 10.40 am, and we were two out of about a dozen people there. But that hardly mattered: it's an extraordinary film, superbly acted (the two actors playing the husband, John Bayley, are so look alike that one of the doctors from Celia's work claimed it was the same actor), with Judi Dench giving a marvellous performance - when has she ever not?? - and Kate Winslet showing that she's one of the great talents of this generation of actors. (Talking about actors looking alike - Timothy West plays Maurice in the film as an older version, and his real life son plays him in the younger version.) The film slips back and forth between the 'present' and the past, and aligns scenes that contrast each other, or complete each other. It's not a new method of storytelling, but it's very well down in this movie. Another intriguing contrast is the squalor of the Bayley house compared to the sterility of the lecture hall Murdoch speaks in, or the tv studio.

I found it a very emotional film, very sympathetic to the difficulties faced by the partner of someone with Alzheimer's, and realistic about just how difficult those very difficulties are. My uncle Reg went off on his own one day, just like Murdoch does in the film. He was found in a lift after a good long time. Even when he visited us, before he was diagnosed with the disease, he was already getting confused about which house he was in, and why it had stairs which it shouldn't have had. Yet he played chess as well as ever.

By contrast, tonight I watched Mansfield Park, a very much reconstructed version of the book. For all Austen may have implied some things in the book, bringing them out into the open has meant a very dark film, lacking the wit that is the hallmark of both Austen's novels, and most of the recent adaptations. As well as that the piece is played very slowly (although even Sense and Sensibility seemed slow on the third time through), and there's a curious lack of vitality around. Frances O'Connor is given plenty of time to express deep emotions, but somehow they don't get across to us. Maybe it's because the blokes around her are cast in such as way that it's a wonder why she should care for either of them. Henry, played by someone with a very non-English name of Alessandro Nivola, is a rake without much rakishness. All he has is a curious charm and a certain selfishness. Even the big revelation scene, when he's found in bed with the married lady of the house, is all very off-hand. The other suitor, the one who doesn't know he is, Edmund, played by Jonny Lee Miller, is a flat pancake of a fellow who doesn't look as though he could get up and go if you lit some of the fireworks we see late in the picture under him. His description of himself as stodgy is more than appropriate, and I think in the end he'd probably drive Fanny wild. As the Salon reviewer says, Trash a revered novel and get acclaimed for "audacity". That's exactly what two of my more readable reviewers, Berardinelli and Roger Ebert do: acclaim it for its thoughtfulness, and for it being deeper. Michael Sragow hadn't even read the book when he saw it, yet felt there was something wrong (I'm in the same boat); but he then did read it, watched the BBC television version - four hours of it - and listened to the BBC radio play from nearly thirty years ago. All of them got hold of what Austen was writing about, and none of them deconstructed it. It seems that feminist auteurs are more clever than they are wise. Portrait of a Lady when Jane Campion got hold of it was a witless piece, with a put-upon by every man in sight, a perpetually weeping female who could hardly hold her end up. In the book she's a victim all right, but of her own stupidity; and there are men in the book who do their best to help her out of that. And the Malcovich character in the book is pathetic, nothing like the villainous domineering chauvinist he appears as in the movie. There's nothing worse than politics grabbing a classic by the heart and tear-ing that heart out in order to replace it with a theory.

An intriguing side point: the actor who plays the younger Bayley in Iris, is also in Mansfield Park, as the dolt of a man who marries the older Bertram daughter. (And the actress who played her has been in three of the Austen adaptations!)

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