Small pleasures

12th December 1997 at 00:00
Robin Buss views the latest cinema releases

The Borrowers (U) Regeneration (15)

The children may want to see the Spice Girls Movie, but entertainment for the whole family at the cinema this Christmas will be provided by The Borrowers.

Most of the audience will probably know the premiss behind the film if not from Mary Norton's novels, then from the recent television adaptation: "Borrowers" are small people who live around the house - under the floorboards, behind the wainscot - and emerge from time to time, to carry off small objects that they find lying around. They always return them, which explains why the thing that has gone missing just when you need it so often turns up later, when you don't.

The books were very English and an oblique commentary on social attitudes, the Clock family being not so much parasites in the woodwork, as neighbours anxious to keep up their standard of living; and the television version recreated this feeling of cosy domesticity. The film, though a British production, needs its international public and international star, so the story is transposed into a mid-Atlantic setting, where town planning is dealt with at City Hall and the environment suggests 1950s America.

The artefacts that help to create the period feel are crucial, because so much of the fun comes from the relative sizes of the diminutive Clocks and the "human beans" (who are 14 times larger). The Borrowers, whose first rule is to avoid being seen, travel with remarkable agility from fridge to table and from table to floor, hiding behind cornflake packets and toasters and old shoes, so the special effects department has a major part to play. And it was a neat idea to cast the oversize John Goodman as chief villain.

However, the film soon tires of home life and kitchen furniture: much of the action takes place out of doors. Goodman plays a wicked lawyer who is anxious to deprive the Lender family of their home, left to them in their aunt's will, so that he can build a block of flats on the site. The Lenders move out and their Borrowers should move with them, but two are accidentally left behind, and see Goodman unearth a copy of the will. From then, the race is on for the Borrowers to get the document to the Lenders and avoid being "squished".

This is a real family film: the children will love the idea of the little people behind the woodwork, the visual effects and the well-orchestrated action scenes, while their parents can try to unravel the tangle of sources and styles: the Borrowers (with Jim Broadbent as Pod, in a hand-knitted cardigan) suggest New Age travellers; the pest exterminator (Mark Williams) is a parcel deliveryman from 1950s small-town America and John Goodman may have modelled his character on Danny De Vito in Wars of the Roses.

What does it all mean? Not much, perhaps, except that the film-makers have done their best to please as many people as possible - and surely succeeded.

Regeneration is adapted from Pat Barker's novel, the first in her trilogy about the Great War. It tells the story of the meeting at Craiglockhart hospital in Scotland, in 1917, between the poets Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, who are among a number of officers being treated for shellshock by Dr William Rivers. In the end, Rivers himself comes to suffer a kind of trauma from his indirect contact with the horrors of the Western Front.

The film's attempts to depict those horrors are its weakest moments. No camera, in any case, can suggest the sights and sounds of the trenches, the mixture of boredom and horror, as well as Owen himself did.

And it is the vivid and bitter poetry of Owen and Sassoon that largely explains why the First World War continues to exercise such a hold on our imagination - and why the poetry is a favourite topic for Eng Lit.

So students will not learn much from Gillies MacKinnon's film that they will not find in the books. In fact, it is those who already know quite a lot about the background who will best appreciate the fine performances (in particular from Jonathan Pryce, Stuart Bunce and Jonny Lee Miller), and the subtleties of a complex interweaving of fact and fiction.

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