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Leo
cast: Joseph Fiennes, Dennis Hopper, Elisabeth Shue, Sam Shepard, and Deborah Kara Unger

director: Mehdi Norowzian

100 minutes (15) 2002
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Universal DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 8/10
reviewed by Jim Steel
When a film starts with a character announcing that he is called Leopold Bloom (Joseph Fiennes), and it is already perfectly clear to all that we're not watching an adaptation of Ulysses, it tends to raise one's heckles. Arrogant? Well, there is a reason for it. In a second timeline his mother, a literate woman racked with guilt over the death of her husband and daughter, picked the first name that came into her head when he was born. And she is called Mary Bloom (Elisabeth Shue). Geddit? After Leo's release from prison at the beginning, he decides to change his name to Stephen. He still keeps himself within the Joycean references with this, demonstrating that he is at least as well read as his mother, but the film doesn't develop the theme any further.

Another joke is surely the casting of Dennis Hopper, who wears his familiar sadistic maniac character straight off the rack. Hello again, Frank. The photography, with the use of lighting and filters - and Mehdi Norowzian is a director who is not afraid to use stillness to evoke a mood - frequently recalls nothing so much as the paintings of Edward Hopper. In other shots the frame is carved up with geometric precision, which again suggests that there is time in abundance in this land. Ennui is, in fact, one of the prime motivators in Leo. It is what drives Horace (Hopper) and, along with her childless jealousy, Isabelle (Emma Thompson, unless I've gone totally mad, who is for some reason called Emma Rogerson in the credits). It is Isabelle who sets the whole chain in motion with her malevolent gossip, and Mary, already slightly aggrieved that she has had to give up her own career, begins to doubt the fidelity of her academic husband (Jake Weber). She has a fling with her white-trash decorator (Ryan Eames) and soon comes to believe that she is carrying his child. When her husband and daughter are accidentally killed the night that she gives birth to Leopold, she numbs the guilt with alcohol and shuts out her son. Her son has a gift for writing, and he is soon penning letters to a prisoner.

Meanwhile the adult Leo has been writing letters to a boy while in prison, and it doesn't take much for the viewer to decide that they are one and the same. As the twin plots move forward, we realise that the boy (a superbly cast Davis Sweatt) is heading for adulthood and murder, and it is even possible to work out who he will murder. That is not the question that the film poses. The question is, what will happen to Leo after his release from prison? He has the calm assurance of someone who is at peace with himself, and who has used the enforced structure to become a disciplined (and talented) writer. However, Horace is a malevolent predator who is going to change things at the dinner where Leo is put to work by the parole board. The dinner, incidentally, is run by an excellently played manager (Sam Shepard), a man who is paralysed by the expectations placed on him by his own religious beliefs.

It's a curious and rewarding film about the evolution and destruction of character. One of the few duff notes occurs when Fiennes plays an 18-year-old Leo. Even with the brightest lighting that Norowzian can justifiably muster, the 32-two-year-old Fiennes looks like he's wandered in off the set of a Farrelly brothers' movie. He's hardly to blame, and he can't be faulted over the course of rest of the film.

This is only Norowzian's second film, and it's hard to believe that he hasn't made another one since then. What's he been doing? Aside from the option of reading subtitles in a whole host of different languages, there are no extras with this release.
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