John N Smith's Dangerous Minds (15) is adapted from the autobiography of LouAnne Johnson, but the theme is so contrived that it might as well be fiction. In fact, the storyline constitutes an entire sub-genre of the School Film species, other examples being Dead Poets' Society, Stand and Deliver and, last year, Clockwork Mice.
Here, ex-Marine LouAnne, played with verve by Michelle Pfeiffer, decides to take up teaching and joins a Californian high school where she is offered a class of "energetic, challenging" youngsters. Her first reaction is to dive for the bunker, but she is encouraged to try again, by a colleague whose own strategy for survival seems to consist of smoking himself to death: since no one smokes routinely any longer in American films, you sense a sub-plot brewing, but it is abandoned halfway. LouAnne, meanwhile, has seduced her class with a programme of karate, caring and candy bars. Before you can finish your first tub of popcorn, they are eagerly comparing and contrasting the lyrics of Bob Dylan and Dylan Thomas, and LouAnne is about to win the support of the group leader, Emilio, who has been kidding us that he was real tough up to now.
Simple, isn't it? If Michelle Pfeiffer can cope that easily with a class of angry black and Hispanic kids from north California, only a very poor teacher, surely, would fail to do the same in Birmingham or Bermondsey. Somehow, in these films, the ghetto environment, domestic violence and abuse, drugs, bullying and peer-group pressures - all of which are supposed to explain why the children have so far failed to adapt to school and society - fall away when confronted by a really caring and imaginative teacher. If the school board will only let her get on with it, LouAnne can deal with her pupils' family problems, unwanted pregnancies, feelings of inadequacy and involvement with a violent, drug-oriented sub-culture. The secrets are love and poetry - a literary form to which this cinematic sub-genre attributes magical powers.
On the face of it, Dangerous Minds might seem to be advancing the cause of education (as well as that of poetry); in reality, what it does is to perpetuate the idea that all "difficult" teenagers need is a little love and a sympathetic ear; that any "good" teacher can supply them; and that it is the proper function of teachers and schools to repair the damage done to young people by their families and social circumstances. These are all dangerous myths.
The surprise success of the Christmas season has been a film that appears to perpetuate another misconception. The Australian production Babe (U) is the story of a pig that takes on the role of a sheepdog and succeeds where the dogs have failed, by using techniques similar to those adopted by Michelle Pfeiffer with her unruly adolescents: instead of trying to bully the sheep and treating them as inferiors, Babe talks nicely to them and wins their co-operation. Not only do the animals in the film respond to kindness in just the same way as a group of kids from the ghetto, they also feel entirely human emotions and communicate in human language (English, needless to say), thanks to some astonishing dubbing and lip synch, plus animatronics and animation; the only thing missing is poetry. It is this masterful display of technical skill, applied to an essentially ludicrous tale, that makes Chris Noonan's film a genuine oddity. Children will thoroughly enjoy it and adults will be amazed by its ability to avoid whimsy - an almost impossible feat, given the subject. Relish its eccentricity, but don't believe a synchronised word.
The latest film from French director Jean-Paul Rappeneau, after his success with Cyrano de Bergerac, is an adaptation of Jean Giono's "Stendhalian" novel, The Horseman on the Roof (15). Set in the 1830s, this is the episodic tale of a young Italian refugee hunted around the south of France by Austrian agents, during an outbreak of cholera. Oddly, the film manages to combine a good deal of action with very little plot. It is well-made, with lots to enjoy (particularly the superb landscapes), and recalls a tradition of Provencal film-making that goes back to Giono and Marcel Pagnol. But I have to say that it is rather insubstantial, and Rappeneau's style of directing feels efficient, but mechanical.
Nonetheless, it could appear quite differently to an enthusiastic A-level student, and he or she should be encouraged to give it a try.
Next month sees the arrival of Sense and Sensibility, starring and scripted by Emma Thompson, and surely the jolliest of all the recent Jane Austen adaptations. It will be a pleasure to review it.