The edgy feel of psychotic violence is something David Fincher understands. Se7en and Fight Club have become classics of modern noir filmmaking, despite being mysoginistic and totally male.

Jane Campion is coming from another place, the female consciousness. The men here are brutish, demanding, dangerous and unpredictable. Their language cuts through the niceties of social intercourse to fundamentals. Sex drives them and, like dogs in the park, they take it where they see it, without apology, or permission, while the women talk of love, as if this, in some way, may protect them.

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Based on Susanna Moore's best selling psychological thriller, the film is as raw as an open wound. Campion's take on New York is unlike any other. Her use of the camera to delve beneath the skin of this frenetic, cosmopolitan, unquiet city is unique. You would have thought that the Broadway backstreets had become clich├ęs of seedy exploitation, after so many TV cop shows and "gritty" movies, but she brings to them a new perspective that takes nothing from what has been before.

Frannie (Meg Ryan) is a wordsmith, who collects language like an antique dealer might specialise in 17th century furniture. She teaches English to underprivileged teenagers and occasionally breaks through their endemic apathy. Her love life is a wasteland, littered with poetic couplets and masturbatory fantasy.

Her involvement with Malloy (Mark Ruffalo) concerns a brutal killing in the neighbourhood. He is the detective in charge of the case and Frannie could have been a witness to something, since she was in the area with one of her students on the night in question.

The murder creates a ripple of unease amongst the call girls and lap dancers in the club down the street, where Frannie's sister (Jennifer Jason Leigh) works. Trust is a word without meaning. "You're a writer," Malloy says. "Is it a job, or a hobby?" "A passion," Frannie says. They use language as a prerequisite to foreplay.

The film succeeds on many levels - the thriller element, the sexual undercurrents, the fear and longing of a woman alone, the reality of violent death, the sickness in the human condition that feeds off desire in this city still trembling from the rape of ideology. Campion is without caution. Sex is a weapon, it seems, as well as the last hope of fulfillment.

Ryan is a revelation, as much because for too long she has appeared incapable of playing anything without the sugar coating of girlie charm. Her courage in tackling such a physically demanding and emotionally devastating role pays dividends. There is not an ounce of sentimentality in her portrayal of this woman whose awakening through eroticism contradicts the lyrical promise contained in subway verse, from which she extracts a modicum of comfort.

Ruffalo's cop is from a different gene pool to Bobby Simone. His Italian-Irish character owes nothing to the sensibility of a public protector. Malloy doesn't have Simone's brains for a start and Ruffalo relishes the rough trade stamp of a working-class mixer, doing a foul job in a dirty city.

As a bonus, Kevin Bacon gives a beautifully quirky performance as a TV soap actor who stalks Frannie. He personifies the self-obsessed angst of a rejected lover and fits into Campion's portrayal of the Big Apple as a dysfunctional zoo, where the animals have screwed up their instincts.

Reviewed on: 30 Oct 2003
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A serial killer at large in the strip clubs off Broadway terrorises a collector of language.
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Jennie Kermode ***

Director: Jane Campion

Writer: Jane Campion, Susanna Moore, based on the novel by Susanna Moore

Starring: Meg Ryan, Mark Ruffalo, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Nick Damici, Sharrieff Pugh, Sunrise Coigney, Frank Harts, Heather Litteer, Susan Gardner

Year: 2003

Runtime: 119 minutes

BBFC: 18 - Age Restricted

Country: US/Australia

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