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Make an arresting beginning

Robin Buss watches Wilde and Smilla's Feeling for Snow

Here are two films which open on scenes that are at once enthralling and puzzling. With Wilde it is a matter of expectations: the audience comes with fairly clear ideas about the atmosphere and setting of the film, reinforced by credit titles in the style of Aubrey Beardsley, so it is faintly disconcerting to see that the first images on the screen are taking us into the realm of the Spaghetti Western.

The group of riders galloping across the Colorado Desert turns out to include Oscar, complete with fur collar, on his way to visit a silver mine where a shaft has just been named in his honour. Lowered into the workings in a basket, he proceeds to lecture the miners on the fabulous use made of their product by Benvenuto Cellini.

The scene is not a piece of gratuitous fun. The Wilde that we meet in these first moments is eccentric, but admirable, committed to his belief in art and beauty; we feel that he has a mission to bring a sense of both into the lives of these uneducated men. Of course, they are also young men, half naked, and Oscar's concern for them may not be as disinterested as he imagines. But this Wilde is a different person from the one who will eventually stand up in court and try to disguise his affairs with rent boys behind fine words about Platonic teachers and Athenian youths. An underlying element in Wilde's tragedy (as depicted in Julian Mitchell's script and Brian Gilbert's film) is Wilde's loss of integrity.

To some extent, one is distracted from this by Stephen Fry's deeply-felt performance in the lead and by the homosexual love scenes to which the film owes its notoriety. The moral problem, according to the film, is not the nature of Wilde's sexual desires, but his refusal to admit it; it is this that leads him to neglect his family and betray his own higher principles.

The treatment of sexual relations is, in fact, quite tame; and the film, which gives a credit to Richard Ellmann's biography, would serve as an enjoyable (if rather long) preface to Wilde's life and work for someone who did not know them.

Smilla's Feeling for Snow is an adaptation of a novel that was a surprising best-seller here when the translation appeared a couple of years ago. The opening scene, set more than a century before the main action, was not in the novel and one would not want to give it away, because it is a superb piece of filming. The main narrative is set in present-day Copenhagen where Smilla (Julia Ormond) becomes suspicious about the apparently accidental death of a six-year old Greenland boy, who has fallen off the roof of her block of flats. The trail leads, in fairly conventional thriller style, to a much larger conspiracy.

This is an entertaining film, but not (after the opening minutes) a particularly unusual or memorable one. Ormond conveys the heroine's rather spiky character and her refusal to compromise her independence; but an international cast and English dialogue deprive the Danish and Greenland settings of any corresponding individuality.

* Finally, the 41st London Film Festival opens this week, with the usual impressive selection of films from around the world. Note, in particular, this Sunday, a Family Surprise Movie matinee at the Odeon, Leicester Square, at 3.45pm.

This is a British film suitable for adults and children of all ages, the title of which is being kept secret until the day.

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