You can do one of two things while watching Layer Cake: You can relax and take in its sleek style, its occasional humor, and the low-burn loveliness of its leading man, Daniel Craig. Or you can try to figure out what’s going on. Doing both, unfortunately, is not an option.

But that’s what can happen when a 400-page, seven-hour screenplay is whittled down to 105 minutes and placed in the hands of a first-time director—in this case, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels producer Matthew Vaughn. Britpulp!-anthologized author J.J. Connolly wrote the script, as well as the crook’s-eye-view novel on which it was based. His many characters are well-drawn, with intricate histories and personalities that are strong without being movie-thug clever. But the concentrated version of Layer Cake’s underworld is so jam-packed with names and background that you never quite get over feeling like a stranger at a family reunion.

A bit of the unfamiliarity is intentional. Craig’s character, a “businessman” whose commodity just happens to be cocaine, is never named, though you might just be too caught up in getting everyone else’s story straight to notice. All you really need to know about XXXX, as he’s referred to in the script, is given in Craig’s opening voice-over anyway: He’s been very successful, but he wants out. His immediate boss, Jimmy Price (Kenneth Cranham), has asked him to do one last job. Obviously, disaster won’t be long in coming.

Vaughn’s original intention was to produce Layer Cake for his buddy Guy Ritchie, as he had Barrels and 2000’s Snatch. Ritchie declined, but Vaughn reportedly figured he’d watched his friend carefully enough to give directing a go of his own—after all, Layer Cake even takes place in the same seedy-London milieu as Ritchie’s popular flicks.

It’s clear Layer Cake wasn’t helmed by the same person who oversaw Snatch, though the difference isn’t due to a lack of experience. Quite the opposite, in fact: Vaughn’s debut feels as if it were directed not by a novice but by a grown-up. There are fewer MTV-furious cuts, more elegantly slow pans and transitions—one of Vaughn’s favored tricks is closing in on the details of one scene, then pulling back as another comes into focus. Energy is provided Danny Boyle–style, with a few moments here and there—during a chase, say—sped up by a barely perceptible degree. Not that Vaughn doesn’t get into the violence: One of Layer Cake’s most compelling scenes angles the camera from the point of view of an unfortunate bloke getting the crap beaten out of him in a diner. But instead of topping things off with frenetic electronica, Vaughn chooses Duran Duran’s “Ordinary World,” subtly adding melancholy to a situation that Ritchie would have staged with glee.

Still, the film isn’t an indictment of the thug life, exactly, or even a self-referential lesson in how seductively good looks can conceal soullessness. Connolly’s characters love what they do, from XXXX’s cool, confident helper, Gene (Colm Meaney), who finds disassembling guns “relaxing,” to the Duke (Jamie Foreman), a status-hungry dumb shit who’s the regrettable holder of the large stash of Ecstasy XXXX is charged with getting his hands on. Whether the Duke’s girlfriend, Slasher (Sally Hawkins), is shrieking at the first sign of stress or Gene is dismissing XXXX’s newfound giddiness over guns—muttering “Oh, for fuck’s sake” as his friend starts sneaking around corners with a pistol like a secret agent—Layer Cake offers lots of small, entertaining moments with its crew. And Craig is an enjoyable antihero, as likable when he’s being a badass as when he’s drinking, drugging, and generally agonizing over a situation gone very wrong.

If only Vaughn & Co. got the bigger picture right. Layer Cake’s title refers to the tiers of power in the criminal world, and it becomes clear that although XXXX initially seems to be a know-it-all on top of the game, he’s really at the mercy of quite a few even sharper people above him. (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban’s Michael Gambon, playing the boss of ’em all, is a highlight.) The main problem with the movie is that the intricacy of this universe is presented in apparently unconnected fragments: First something happens with characters unknown and reasons unclear; then we hear people talking about the whys afterward—sometimes.

The rest of the time, the whys are probably just an excuse to get Craig out of his shirt again. At one point, XXXX is dragged out of a hotel room by a bunch of people he doesn’t know and told a long story about why the mission he’s on is a setup. He asks questions and listens intently but eventually admits, “I’m still not with you.” You won’t be, either, but if you just like looking, you’ll probably be content to nod along.

Ladies in Lavender suffers from the opposite problem: It requires no straining whatever to understand its trifle of a plot, which writer-director Charles Dance has stretched beyond its limit from a short story by William J. Locke.

The film’s opening forewarns of the drivel to come: Elderly sisters Ursula (Judi Dench) and Janet (Maggie Smith) are cavorting on a beach in 1936 Cornwall, with Dance slowing frames and then freezing them at moments of maximum whimsy. They go back to their large home overlooking the shore, where they occupy themselves with gardening, knitting, dining on the suppers provided by their brusque housekeeper, Dorcas (Miriam Margolyes), and listening to the radio. When night falls, the sisters take to their twin beds, set up side by side in an upstairs room.

Ursula and Janet’s routine is upset—but only slightly—when a young man (Good Bye Lenin!’s Daniel Brühl) washes up on the beach after a storm. He’s barely alive, so the sisters summon help to move him to their spare bedroom, where they nurse him back to health. He doesn’t speak English, but he communicates with Ursula and Janet in German well enough to tell them that his name is Andrea and he is Polish. They also find out that Andrea plays the violin, when he responds to Janet’s impromptu but competent turn at the piano as if hearing nails on a blackboard.

Of course—don’t all violinists hate the piano? This is just one of Ladies in Lavender’s more bizarre moments, though the prize goes to the development on which the story turns: The usually chipper Ursula becomes petulant and melancholy after the dopey Andrea, who can’t be a day over 20, stays around for a while. She dreams about rolling around in the grass with him, her gray hair once again brown; whenever Janet speaks to him, Ursula pouts.

Needless to say, fans who prefer to see Dench playing strong characters should look elsewhere. Her Ursula can charitably be described as childlike, though a dim old fool is a bit more accurate. Smith’s Janet has a little more edge, unleashing the rare barb in this strenuously quaint drama. (She responds to the maid’s query of what Polish people eat for breakfast, for example, with “Probably some awful kind of sausage.”) But neither of Britain’s great dames is challenged here—sure, Dench’s character has some serious inner conflict going on, but she’s not often asked to express it. “He’s up!” “He’s home!” and “He likes the lunch!” are the biggest developments the actresses are typically asked to negotiate.

But this isn’t the most infuriating thing about Ladies in Lavender. Neither is the icky subplot about a borderline stalker—the middle-aged town doctor (David Warner), who becomes enamored of a young artist (Natascha McElhone), a bohemian, landscape-painting type who irritatingly shows up at the sisters’ home whenever Andrea happens to be playing the violin. No, the worst part of Dance’s film is that its most dramatic moments are completely contrived, situations that would have been prevented if only people had passed on some simple information—why, for example, would anyone tell a friend to drop by tomorrow for a surprise without mentioning that the surprise is that he needs to leave town immediately and no, he doesn’t have time to pack?

Details such as how Andrea even ended up on the beach, meanwhile, go unexplained—the more time to focus on things such as his giving Ursula a pebble when they go for a stroll. She’s thrilled, Janet’s annoyed, and you’ll be longing for some real drama—such as having the sisters shove their guest back into to the sea from which he came.CP

More from WCP