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Saturday, May 1, 1999

'Ever after' -- The damsel who saved herself

Fairy tales. Not until you grow up do you realize how carnal, primitive and downright Darwinian those things are. If a girl wasn't beautiful she had no chance and even if she was, some old witch gave her a terrible time until that chance came along. That was always in the form of a rich, handsome guy on a white horse who swept her away to his castle and decked her out in jewels. What do such stories say to a child? They say, buy makeup and leather minis and go on a diet immediately.

Now Hollywood is out to inject a little modern feminist manifesto into fairy tales. "Ever After" is an intelligent new take on an old, old story -- the one about the ball and the glass slipper. Supposedly set in mid 16th-century France, this sumptuous period movie has a tendency to ignore period facts but never mind -- "Ever After" is outrageous fun. It should, in fact, replace all existing "Cinderellas" as the official version -- if girls have to know the story at all, then this movie should do the telling.

Director/screenwriter Andrew Tennant displays a stroke of brilliance in trashing the fantasy (the pumpkin, the fairy godmother) and pumping the story up with nastiness, intrigue and betrayal. Not that the film is bogged down with darkness. On the contrary, Tennant shows a flair for comedic, romantic, lighthearted cynicism. And the brilliant performances by Drew Barrymore (Cinderella) and Anjelica Huston (Stepmom) complements his storytelling all the way. Their chemistry so sizzles that the love affair between Barrymore and the Prince (Dougray Scott) seems beside the point -- the real dirt here is two femmes in a fiery race for a promotion.

"Ever After" would have worked just as well had Barrymore played a corporate underling, full of willingness and lofty ambitions, with Huston in the role of a boss whose goal in life is to eat in the executive lounge. Both are vying for a seat on the Board in the multibillion-dollar corporation called "The Palace" and the only way to get it is through the CEO's spoiled son. The underling goes about it through intelligence and sincerity. The boss engages in petty scheming. Of course the son falls for the underling . . . BUT! He falls as much for her physical attractions as her brains and integrity.

That all this unfolds not against the backdrop of office corridors but the lush French countryside and stone chateau is "Ever After's" greatest charm. As for the costumes, designer Jenny Bevan should open her own boutique and call it "Mothers and Daughters." No woman would mind being a wicked stepmother if she could only dress for it like Anjelica Huston.

On another note, but broadcasting a similar message, is "Firelight." Directed and written by William Nicholson (the writer of "Nell") in this feature debut work, "Firelight" is as subtle and somber as "Ever After" was vivacious and bold. Set in a wintry 19th-century Sussex where the entire world sinks in hues of blue and white, "Firelight" is the cinematic equivalent of the dictum: "Less is more."

Nicholson is sparing of everything -- dialogue, color, lighting, frilly costumes and even the wonderful score by Christopher Gunning. The one thing that's deployed with anything like extravagance is the light of a fire. Not until you see this movie do you realize how mesmerizing it is, how sensual and seductive.

Such a work deserves an appropriate centerpiece and Nicholson could not have done better than cast Sophie Marceau. Her role is Elizabeth, a beautiful Swiss governess with progressive ideas. To pay off her father's debts, she agrees to a business proposition from an anonymous Englishman (Stephen Dillane): to have his baby, then hand it over and never see either of them again. She thinks this is far preferable to marriage, which in her mind spells slavery for life.

Elizabeth did not bargain for the enormous regret that came with being deprived of her baby nor of being irresistibly attracted to its father. She spends seven years trying to track them down and when she does, wrangles a position as governess in their household.

Elizabeth's baby has now matured into a hostile and rebellious girl called Louisa. Her father's indulgence enhances her erratic behavior and no governess had ever stayed long enough to curb her ways.

Elizabeth steps in and goes to work. For Lousia, this is the first time anyone had ever shown a serious interest in her, serious enough to take her by the shoulders, look straight into her eyes and speak about things that matter. Elizabeth exhorts her to read, to open her mind and understand the world, since this is the only way a woman could ever be free: "The minute you grow up the walls will close all around you, simply because you're a woman. Then the only freedom allowed you will be here, inside your head!"

One of the most powerful scenes in the film, it is also one of the rare instances in which anyone speaks more than three words at a time. Muted voices, silent looks, huge rooms bare of decor. These make up the world of "Firelight." It puts every clanky, fast-talking, in-your-face movie to utter shame.

"Firelight" opens today at Le Cinema inside the Bunkamura in Shibuya. "Ever After" is playing at the Miyukiza Theater in Hibiya and other theaters.

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