Cinema Signal:

The Dispute: A play by Marivaux

. "The Triumph of Love"

When you're a screenwriter and the wife of a famous director who has been taking your suggestions for years, and when he offers to help write and produce if you direct your own movie, what kind of material do you go to? In this case, director Clare Peploe who wrote "Zabriskie Point" in 1970 and "Besieged" in 1998 and husband-producer Bernardo Bertolluci came up with a movie version of an 18th century comedy by Pierre Marivaux (talk about public domain). But if you're going to present such fare to a modern audience, what do you do to justify the choice?

Unfortunately, Peploe doesn't do much and the result is an awkward hybrid out of a theatrical age of fussy mannerisms. That it works at all stems in large part from the delicious charms of Mira Sorvino in the role of Princess Leonide who appears in the guise of a young man called Phocion. Already you should be getting the idea that this is stilted stuff in a time warp.

In any case, Princess Leonide falls in love with Agis (Jay Rodan) who, ironically enough, is her sworn enemy. It was the princess' family that killed Agis' parents year before, usurping their throne and passing it on to Leonide as an inheritance. She, herself, feels like a usurper and her rather mature and decent sense of morality instills in her a desire to return the throne to its rightful owner, the son of the murdered king and queen.

This turns out to be none other than Agis, with whom, on first sight, she's fallen head over heels, propelling her through the strategems that is the material of the kind of comedy of intrigue and missteps that was the mainstay of legitimate theatre in 1732.

The complication is that Agis, since a boy, was taken in by philosopher Hermocrates (Ben Kingsley) and his spinster sister Leontine (Fiona Shaw), a scientist attempting to generate electricity: inveterate hermits both. The protection they offer the boy is that of a walled estate King Midas might have coveted. Further for his protection as well as their proclivity toward privacy, they allow no visitors, no matter what appeal may be made.

Enter Leonide, after her Agis, disguised as a man and in company with a "pal", her maiden Corine disguised as her right hand man, Hermidas. The ploy, in order to make her conquest of Agis, is to woo Hermocrates, who has easily "made" her as a woman in disguise, and Leontine, who is less acute than her brother. By winning their hearts, she manages to remain in the estate long enough to work on Agis. This is tortured stuff.

Sorvino, however, seems to enjoy herself as she juggles all the intrigues along with the necessary gender changes. Her guileful energy almost pulls off a rescue of the cartoonishness of the proceedings and generates what enjoyment can be derived from it. Credit also to masterful costuming and artful makeup, both requirements for the deceptions to appear even slightly credible.

Significant credit should also go to a performance that is the kind of role easily overlooked, that of Rachael Stirling as side-kick Hermidas/Corine. With well balanced taste for the needs of the part -- a steadiness and devotion to the heartstrings of her princess -- Stirling showcases gifts in breathing life and fine timing into a supporting role. There's a modesty there that is finely modulated to the needs of the part and confidently provides timely counterpoint to her leading lady's emotional seesaw.

It's not that good movies for a modern audience can't be made from much older material. Director Ang Lee and screenwriter Emma Thompson proved that with "Sense and Sensibilities" in 1995 and there are some good adaptations from Shakespeare. But this one seems to defy the instincts and technical command of this first time director, no matter her exposure to some very interesting productions in her past.

Doesn't the title tell it all?

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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Mira Sorvino as Princess Leonide/Phocion/Aspasie

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