Ideal worlds revisited

28th March 1997 at 00:00
The Railway Children Lionel Jeffries (U) The English Patient Anthony Minghella (15)

As Easter arrives, Robin Buss tracks down a handful of escapist films for all ages.

Space rules in the cinema this Easter, with Space Jam (U), a mixure of live action and animation, basketball and space invaders, being followed by "special editions" of the Star Wars trilogy: after Star Wars (PG) itself, released last week, we have The Empire Strikes Back (U) coming out on April 11 and Return of the Jedi (U) on April 25, all three remastered and including previously unseen footage. Apparently, George Lucas is working on another six parts to the saga.

It is hard to tell what the Space Jam generation will make of The Railway Children, also being re-released this month by the BFI in a brand new print, after 27 years. The first thing that one notices about the story is that, with the exception of a rather grumpy housekeeper who doesn't last to the end of the first reel, everyone is so thoroughly nice.

The only conflicts arise when some entirely well-intentioned scheme - for example, the children's collection of birthday presents for the station master - is misinterpreted as a patronising gesture, and a terrible cloud falls across the screen until the matter has been cleared up. Otherwise the milk of human kindness flows as plentifully as an EU agricultural surplus.

Wait and hope, is the message, any struggle is taking place beyond reach of intervention, so far away that only a hint of it can penetrate this idyllic world. Exiled to quite genteel poverty in Yorkshire, the children save a Russian refugee, an injured schoolboy and an imperilled train, while themselves being helped by the doctor, the station master and the Old Gentleman (who turns out to own the railway, which explains why he likes riding on it so much).

But the acting is extraordinarily good: have Jenny Agutter, Sally Thomsett and Bernard Cribbins ever done anything better? And, damn it, the film presses all the right buttons, making it the ultimate feel-good movie: wait and hope, because everything will turn out for the best, in this best of possible worlds.

The English Patient, Anthony Minghella's lavishly praised adaptation of the novel by Michael Ondaatje, is another film about an ideal world, that looks good at the time, but may produce unease after you leave the cinema. Hang on, you may say (for a start), why was the patient in question being transported all over Tuscany during the liberation of Italy, when he is critically ill after a plane crash in North Africa? The real answer is surely: because of the scenery. Minghella wants a contrast with the vast expanses of desert that he observes elsewhere in the film with such an adoring eye.

The characters seem to exist not only on the margins of the war, but on the margins of all other human realities, leaping into planes whenever they feel like it, finding their way across uncharted tracts of sand and deciding, entirely on their own initiative, that having stumbled across a conveniently deserted monastery, they will stay behind there and let the Army carry on without them. Does nurse Juliette Binoche have no other patients to care for?

Just as the characters themselves are too preoccupied with their own affairs to bother about fighting Nazis - a global conflict is reduced to the status of a minor irritation - so one feels that the film-makers have no time for mere plausibility when their minds are on big questions of love, tragedy and betrayal.

Admittedly, Minghella is good at surprising us with unexpected and deflating details: for example, the way that Kristin Scott Thomas tells her lover Ralph Fiennes that she can't see him again, then hits her head as she turns to leave; but such things are not enough to anchor the characters in the everyday world.

Minghella has been compared to David Lean, and the comparison is apt: The English Patient takes the sentiments of Doctor Zhivago and puts them in the landscape of Lawrence of Arabia. And, like Lean's films, despite the stunning photography, the beautiful actors and the gorgeous acting, it leaves an impression of emptiness; these are ideas of people experiencing ideas of feelings.

Quite suitable, however, for susceptible adolescents, just as The Railway Children is (even more) suitable for their younger brothers and sisters. The illusions of youth will be shattered soon enough without help from the cinema.

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