Friday, June 26, 2009

'Cheri' misses an urgent edge

A variety of failures -- all of them mild -- turn "Cheri," an adaptation of two of Colette's Parisian novels, into a surprisingly bloodless costume drama, a movie full of love and sex that never generates enough heat.

Stephen Frears, who directed "Dangerous Liaisons" from a script by playwright Christopher Hampton, would seem an ideal choice to direct this Hampton-written screenplay about the doomed romance between an aging courtesan (Michelle Pfeiffer, another "Dangerous Liaisons" alum) and her 19-year-old lover (Rupert Friend).

As is often the case, what seems ideal falls short of perfection. An English-speaking cast can't find the fire that could have liberated "Cheri" from its period trappings. Friend's character -- affectionately called Cheri by Pfeiffer's Lea -- comes off like a world-class mope, and Pfeiffer can't quite master Lea's alternating moods of desolation and calculation. Lea suffers deeply when Cheri abandons her, but Pfeiffer's performance doesn't suggest enough of Lea's strength.

Felicity Jones signs on as Edmee, the woman who Cheri's mother (Kathy Bates) chooses for him. Bates finds the requisite vitality for her role; she's playing a woman who knows how to kill with a compliment.

Burdened by a narration which Frears himself delivers, the movie tries for a last-minute helping of shock, but Frears never succeeds in giving the material the agonized life it demands. Beautifully conceived by production designer Alan MacDonald, "Cheri" can feel more designed than lived in.

"Cheri" probably doesn't deserve to be tarnished with a "middle brow'' label, but it comes uncomfortably close, something that you don't really expect from Frears, whose movies -- from "My Beautiful Laudrette" to "Dirty Pretty Things" -- usually have been put a skillful finger on the nearest cutting edge.

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