A moral tale – but of the French kind

France, we know, is a mirror held to England. Bel Ami, a sleekly spellbinding version of Guy de Maupassant’s rake’s tale by the British Cheek By Jowl stage-directing duo Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod, proves it again. France sits across the Channel showing England its features the wrong way round. Most demonstrably – as centuries of art and fiction attest – a “moral tale” over there is the same as an immoral tale over here.

In France the writers of these stories (Laclos, Balzac, Stendhal, Maupassant) depict young men advancing unscrupulously through society, opposed or abetted by women avid for love while alert for self-interest. The women are always more resourceful than the men: only social convention holds them back. Georges Duroy, Maupassant’s ambitious provincial go-getter, comes to Paris and gets lots of “go”, but the redemptive nemesis of “stop” is never far away. As a seducer and social climber he is finally hoist with his own triumphs.

Robert Pattinson is clever casting. Here is his Twilight impassivity – weird, lucent-eyed, fixed of stare, sullenly magnetic – but Donnellan and Ormerod use it with sly craft. In early scenes this hero plays out ambition as if he has learnt it by rote; he seems to read even his love declarations from some invisible Autocue. Later he is all the more powerfully horrified and undone – we too, if identifying with him – when his ambitions start to play him.

The women hold the cards or seem to. Uma Thurman is the rich society wife coquettishly declaiming her unattainability, Kristin Scott Thomas the brittle matron with reserves of passion and spite, Christina Ricci the cultivated, hothouse “innocent”. Nearly everyone founders in the end, including the women. The social protocol unravels and this belle époque, unmasked, turns out to be a hag in make-up. That is the moral here: be true and truthful, or be prepared for the cataclysm. The directors give the story a barbed conviction and the female players, especially, act to the hilt.

Britain is more literal-minded than France. It is less ready to believe that moral and immoral tales can be the same thing. Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles was condemned in its day as “immoral”. Today, vindicated and invincible, the story returns to the movie screen. Trishna is director Michael Winterbottom’s third go at Hardy. Jude (1996) was faithful to the original’s time and place; The Claim (2000) relocated The Mayor of Casterbridge to 1860s California; Trishna translates Tess to modern India. Freida Pinto plays the village girl seduced by an Anglo-Indian tourist (Riz Ahmed), given work in his dad’s Jaipur hotel and all but promised marriage. A pregnancy follows; then an abortion. The dream of hope unwinds to expose a nightmare of disillusionment.

Brilliantly, Winterbottom takes the novel’s two main male characters, Alec d’Urberville and Angel Clare, and makes them one. The insufferable cynic and the insufferable idealist are the same, proposes Trishna; Hardy merely served them on separate plates. The film invests its own pluralism of perspective in the street scenes: colourful, honking, raggle-taggle tableaux where centuries interconnect in the jostling of carts and cars, of sari’d Indian women and denim’d tourists … This Jaipur is as rich with contrast and contradiction – with crisscrossing lines of culture, history, morality – as that in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. But instead of sentimental seriocomedy we get anguish, grief and finally, in a scene so up-close and shocking we almost want to laugh in nervous release, murder. When was a victim’s face caught like this, as if by a stop-motion camera, in so many near-frozen postures of gradual, graduated astonishment?

Trishna’s weakness is Trishna herself. Nature gave Freida Pinto million-dollar looks and a supermodel complexion. She no more convinces here, as a lowly village girl, than she did in Slumdog Millionaire. She moves through Trishna trance-like and decorative. I began to think: if only there were a space/time transfer window for movie casts. Pinto could grow old and play Judi Dench’s elegantly vapid character in Marigold. Dench could grow young and bring her passionate vulnerability and intensity of identification to a part that needs both. Dench isn’t Indian. But in cinema everything can be magicked, finessed or negotiated ...

It is Literary Week at the movies, complete with special offers. Two will get you four, if you want another pair of dead white male authors. Two Edgars from the US: revived to give us John Carter and The Raven. In the 19-teens Edgar Rice Burroughs took a day off Tarzan to invent the hero of the first, an adventurer hurled from Virginia, US, to Mars to join the red planet’s civil war between Tharks and Therns.

They sound like units of gas consumption. They look like stick insects with semi-human faces. They charge or wobble about – sometimes charmingly – as if Digimation was in its first and tender infancy in the years before the first world war. For Pixar prodigy Andrew Stanton (Wall-E, Finding Nemo), directing and co-writing, it was obviously a labour of love. But for two hours, as with any problem birth, we get more labour than love. It’s a caterwaul of colour, motion and incomprehensible plot issues. And with a star called Taylor Kitsch (handsome, virile, plankishly inexpressive) and a heroine called Dejah (decorative) the film’s style virtually defines itself. Retro Camp.

Poor Edgar Allan Poe. For years he groomed that personality-defining black moustache sitting like a mournful raven on his upper lip. Then along comes John Cusack in The Raven wearing a full-order goatee. Can’t Hollywood get anything right? Cusack looks too handsome, too topiarised. And he acts as if bipolar Edgar had parked his “depressive” and shifted his “manic” into overdrive.

The author died on a park bench after a week unaccounted for by biographers. That lacuna in his last days was a bad career move for Poe. In cinema, fools rush in, or ghouls, where chroniclers failed to tread. The Raven conjectures that the author was involved in helping the Baltimore police track a serial killer patterning his crimes after Poe’s stories. Maryland’s finest bluster about town, discovering pendulum-sliced corpses, prematurely buried damsels, and ravens flying off every crime site as if an infestation has arrived from the Tower of London. Screen hokum gets no hokier.

Cleanskin has Charlotte Rampling dying, spiritually at least, on a bench. It can be contagious. In this dull, maladroit terrorist drama she plays a British intelligence chief deploying Sean Bean – the bench is their meeting place – to find and terminate a deep-cover radicalised Muslim (Abhin Galeya). The story oscillates like a defective metronome. Now it is with Bean’s story, now with Galeya’s, in variable chunks but never long enough to interest us in either. Rampling, brief, sour, incisive, steals the few scenes she gets. In a week of cultural commemoration, let’s give that bench a blue plaque.

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