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Most directors kill the novels they love, but Robert Benton has done Richard Russo’s Nobody’s Fool a small favor. Inevitably, the writer/director (Kramer vs. Kramer, Places in the Heart) has sweetened and mildly sanitized his source material, but he’s also streamlined what is a rather garrulous, sloppy book. In this case, there’s something to be said for condensing 550 pages of print into two hours of celluloid.

Though Benton has smoothed some of the rougher aspects of his central character, the principal way he’s glamorized him is by casting Paul Newman. At 70, Newman still looks a little too sleek to impersonate 60-year-old day laborer Donald “Sully” Sullivan, but the role is a reasonably good fit. Among the limited cast of North Bath, N.Y., after all, Sully is supposed to be a charismatic figure, and Newman has no problem with that aspect of the part. Surrounded by snow, run-down Victorian architecture, and character actors, Newman is convincing as a small-town small-timer, charming to (almost) everyone who doesn’t have to depend on him.

Those who do depend on Sully, to varying degrees, include his landlady and former schoolteacher Miss Beryl (Jessica Tandy), his dim sidekick Rub (Pruitt Taylor Vince), his lawyer Wirf (Gene Saks), his part-time boss and Bath’s full-time philanderer Carl Roebuck (Bruce Willis), and Carl’s long-suffering wife Toby (Melanie Griffith). (Agreeably, both Willis and Griffith demonstrate that they can be assets to movies they’re not required to carry.) Since Sully rarely does much except haul himself from bed, to the local diner, to work, to the local bar, and back to bed, his responsibilities to these people (pruned from a larger company in the novel) are all he can handle. Circumstance increases that list, however, when Sully’s son Peter (Dylan Walsh) arrives to spend Thanksgiving with his mother, Sully’s ex-wife, and ends up splitting with his wife and staying in town with his young son Will (Alexander Goodwin).

Though suffering from a smashed-up knee that isn’t getting better, Sully has no prospects outside construction work. Neither, for the moment, does Peter, a college professor who’s been denied tenure. So Sully takes his son as a co-worker, much to the annoyance of Rub; he also begins to pay attention to Will, becoming grandfatherly to the son of the son to whom he was never fatherly.

“Have you ever noticed how people do the same things over and over?” Wirf asks Sully in the novel, and the rhythm of Fool is cyclical: Sully, who believes his boss owes him money, keeps stealing Carl’s snow blower, and Carl keeps stealing it back; Wirf keeps trying to get full disability for Sully; Carl keeps screwing his bimbo secretary, firing her to appease Toby, and then hiring another just like her predecessor; Sully keeps betting on the trifecta. The arrival of Peter and Will disrupts this routine (though not so drastically as in the book), and the luck of both Bath’s leading citizens—embodied by Miss Beryl’s coldhearted banker son (Josef Sommer)—and Sully is due for a change.

The film’s cozy message is that even 60-year-olds are not too old to grow up, which is where things get sticky. Fortunately, Sully doesn’t grow up too much, but in making him uplifting as well as crankily lovable, Benton goes too far. Unlike Places in the Heart, which balanced its ordinary-people sentimentality with the Depression and the Ku Klux Klan, Fool only has the modest bad fortune of an upstate New York town skirted by the thruway. Still, the film wouldn’t have been better if it had scrupulously included every angry moment and stray vulgarism from Russo’s novel; compared to other Hollywood compromises between comfort and woe, it’s almost bracing.

There are worse things that could happen to a country’s anguish than for it to become the subject of a well-made play, but watching Death and the Maiden it’s hard to think of any. Though hardly as embarrassing as The House of the Spirits, Hollywood’s latest riff on the Pinochet regime’s brutality turns political outrage into mere psychodrama. As directed by Roman Polanski from Rafael Yglesias and Ariel Dorfman’s adaptation of the latter’s play, the events are vivid enough, but their implications are neutered.

So, for that matter, is Chile itself, introduced as “a country in South America” where the radio chatters incongruously in American English; though Death was filmed in Portugal, the only thing that stands between it and California is Polanski’s legal predicament. With Sigourney Weaver drawing on her experience battling voracious monsters in the Alien series, this exercise seems almost entirely detached from the circumstances that inspired it.

Weaver plays Paulina Escobar, who lives in a remote house near some coastal palisades—an odd choice of a home for a woman as apprehensive as she is. As she waits for her lawyer husband to come home, she paces anxiously and eats dinner in a closet; when she hears an unfamiliar car, she pulls out a gun. It’s just her husband Gerardo (Stuart Wilson), though. His car has broken down, and he’s been given a ride home by the seemingly kindly Dr. Miranda (Ben Kingsley). After the doctor leaves, husband and wife argue over Gerardo’s decision to accept a position investigating the crimes of the former regime, an inquiry she insists will be a whitewash. It’s clear that Paulina has suffered at the hand of the deposed junta.

Later that night, Miranda returns with Gerardo’s tire, and the two men settle in for a drink and a chat. “In a democracy, the midnight knock on the door can be friendly,” they banter as they drink, but in fact Miranda has just entered a new dictatorship—Paulina’s. Convinced that she recognized his voice as that of one of her torturers, Paulina takes Miranda prisoner, tying, gagging, and—for good measure—pistol-whipping him. She intends to put him on trial, with her irritatingly judicious husband as judge.

“Shut up, bitch,” Paulina snaps at the doctor—as if it weren’t clear enough what’s going on. It’s the role-reversal waltz those familiar with Polanski films from Knife in the Water to Bitter Moon will recognize as one of the director’s favorites; shifting alliances among edgy threesomes are a specialty. After Paulina’s vulnerability has been revealed in almost prurient detail—she strips off her shirt to reveal her scars and tells of how and how often she was raped—she becomes a powerful avenger. (Reportedly, she’s a more competent oppressor in the film than in the play, which suits Polanski’s taste for the complete turnabout.)

In the process of Paulina’s interrogation—which turns out to be of Gerardo as well as the doctor—much is revealed about her relationship with her husband. Though Gerardo considers his wife an extreme case of the female inscrutability and instability he and Miranda had lamented in their drunken rapport, he can’t abandon her because he owes her a major debt. Annoyingly, however, little can be ascertained about Miranda. All that’s clear is the vehemence of his accuser; the film (still a play in this regard) wants to withhold confirmation of his guilt or innocence until the end of the last act.

For Polanski, all politics are personal; he was charting such context-free conflicts when still behind the Iron Curtain. Death and the Maiden has a context, though, and for all its intensity the film cheapens it, downgrading national trauma into a bloody but bourgeois parlor game. If the victims of Pinochet don’t deserve better, certainly the audience does.

The past just wasn’t as pretty as it usually looks in costume dramas, and if Queen Margot turns on a luxuriantly photographed romance between two of Europe’s comeliest actors, Isabelle Adjani and Vincent Perez, it is nonetheless determinedly ugly in places. Among those places are the streets of late-16th-century Paris, where a masked Margot (Adjani) goes looking for an anonymous lover on her wedding night—and where her duplicitous family subsequently leads the massacre of 6,000 Huguenots in town for the marriage of the Catholic Margot and the Protestant Henri de Navarre (Daniel Auteuil).

Writer/director Patrice Chereau and producer Claude Berri credit the scenario to a novel by Alexandre Dumas, so it’s to be expected that the film emphasizes romance over history. The St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre is rendered with bloody enthusiasm, but Margot is more interested in its namesake and her decadent, polymorphously incestuous family than in what it all meant for France and the Protestant Huguenots (many of whom fled to refuge in Holland, England, and later the New World).

The royals are a vivid, if largely inexplicable, bunch. The brood’s twisted mom, Catherine de’ Médici (Virna Lisi), wants what’s best for her sons, especially the one with whom she’s apparently sleeping, Anjou (Pascal Greggory). Her eldest, weak King Charles IX (Jean-Hugues Anglade, the crazed ringleader of Killing Zoe‘s bank job), can’t decide whether to assassinate Henri or accept him as his most trusted friend. Though initially repulsed by her forced marriage to Henri, Margot becomes her husband’s ally, perhaps because among his followers is brooding commoner La Mole (Perez), for whom Margot has developed an abiding passion based on one fleeting assignation in a dirty Paris street.

Miramax, which is notorious for streamlining foreign films for American audiences, cut 23 minutes of Margot, so perhaps some keys to the characters’ psychological transformations were misplaced in the process. Chereau values passion over psychology, though, and the film’s style is more operatic than dramatic. Adjani, Perez, and Lisi inhabit their roles boldly, which is often sufficient compensation for their opaque motivation. Nuance is perhaps inappropriate for a film in which one man saves another while boar hunting; a woman dies from an “aphrodisiac” actually designed to kill her lover; another character, also poisoned, begins bleeding from his pores; and, at two lovers’ final meeting, one of them is minus a head.

Considering Chereau’s instinct for spectacle, his choice of music is odd. Mixing angelic choirs with synthesized thumps and clanks, the incongruous score sometimes suggests instrumental passages from bad Doors epics, other times an anachronistic hybrid that might be called “ambient castle.” The chiaroscuro cinematography, however, serves the film well. The exquisite play of light and shadow not only gives Margot—and its photogenic cast—an elegant look; it also places the events in a setting where they seem, if not quite convincing, at least appropriate.