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At times, it seems that Beyond Rangoon‘s design requires brutalizing an entire nation so that one American can recover her self. Those are the bad moments, and some of them are quite terrible. Ultimately, though, that lone American becomes a surrogate for all the residents of her clueless, self-absorbed country—the Jack Lemmon role in Missing, updated for a more recent political horrorshow. If that formulation is a bit preachy, it’s also frequently stirring.

Patricia Arquette, cast against type but not always playing against it, is Laura Bowman, a doctor who recently discovered the bodies of her husband and young son, murdered in a robbery. Her sister Andy (Frances McDormand) has prescribed a Southeast Asian tour (led by Spalding Gray’s unctuous, impatient guide) as a cure to her grief, but it hasn’t worked. Then, the night before the tour group is scheduled to leave Burma (Myanmar, according to the current military dictatorship), Laura breaks curfew and wanders the streets of Rangoon (Yangon), where she encounters a pro-democracy demonstration. She’s entranced by the bravery of the people, especially leader Aung San Suu Kyi. (Played by Adelle Lutz, Mrs. David Byrne, the Nobel Peace Prize winner is the only actual Burmese portrayed in the film.) Laura returns to her hotel energized, but without her passport.

Unable to leave the country, Laura decides to explore it instead. She engages a kindly older man, U Aung Ko, as a tour guide (though played by an actor of the same name, the filmmakers caution that he’s a fictional character). They head out of the city, toward regions off limits to tourists—“everything is illegal in Burma,” explains Ko—but easily traversed with a series of bribes. After Ko’s car breaks down, Laura spends a happy evening with his young friends, and discovers that her guide is a former college professor banned from teaching because of his pro-democracy activities; his comrades are former students, many of them unpopular with the military regime. Laura vomits some leftover Western bile, dons a native costume, and begins to identify with her hosts’ cause.

Overnight, there’s a change in the political weather. The 1988 crackdown has begun, and troops have begun shooting peaceful demonstrators. Ko’s young friends scatter for refuge, and suddenly bribes are no longer sufficient to ensure safe passage. After Ko is rescued from a brutal beating, he and Laura begin a frantic trek to safety, heading first for Rangoon and then for the Thai border. Laura realizes she’s in a country where people’s loved ones vanish every day, and under pressure her will to live—and practice medicine—returns. Lifting some supplies from a deserted clinic, she administers to Ko’s wounds; arriving at a refugee camp, she finds that she’s needed again, and thus can accept her loss. In a final visitation, her dead son tells Laura that “you’ve gotta let me go.”

Bill Rubenstein, who wrote the script with Alex Lasker, insists that he didn’t intend a political film, and leaden scenes like that one support his argument. (At its worst, Rangoon‘s heal-the-parent theme is as banal as anything in Magic in the Water, a staggeringly awful E.T. knockoff opening this week, in which an uptight, distant dad learns how to see the world through his openhearted child’s eyes.) Fortunately, Boorman reworked the script to include more factual detail, including the role of Aung San Suu Kyi, who was recently freed after years of house arrest. The result is rousing agitprop that only stumbles when it trips over what’s left of Rubenstein and Lasker’s original theme.

In motifs and locations, Rangoon echoes such previous Boorman films as Deliverance, The Emerald Forest, and even Hope and Glory. (All feature river journeys, most involve wilderness, and in both Rangoon and Hope the cataclysm of war permits personal liberation.) By comparison to the director’s more baroque works, however, this is impressively efficient. A taut political thriller with a Buddhist chaser—“We are taught that suffering is the only promise life keeps,” Ko tells Laura—Rangoon uses action-flick conventions to open a world beyond Hollywood’s concern. The lesson the film teaches its protagonist is glib, but the experience it offers the viewer is more profound.

In Le Mans in 1933, two sisters, servants in the same bourgeois home, butchered their employer and her daughter. This event inspired The Maids, probably Jean Genet’s best-known play; 40 years later, playwright Wendy Kessleman wrote a more literal account of the crime, My Sister in This House, now filmed as Sister, My Sister by the play’s original director, Nancy Meckler.

The play’s thesis, supported only by gossip since the case’s records will remain sealed until 2033, is that Christine (Joely Richardson) and her younger sister Lea (Jodhi May) were lovers. Over the course of the film, their increasingly intense relationship obliterates the rest of the world; the two women stop visiting their mother and lose their dedication to the domestic tasks at which they, especially Christine, once excelled.

Their relationship also parallels that of the household’s other two women, Madame Danzard (Julie Walters) and her grown but juvenilized daughter Isabelle (Sophie Thursfield). Where Christine desperately desires to protect Lea, Madame Danzard is fiercely competitive with her daughter; both of the older women, however, fear most of all that their younger counterpart will someday leave them. Christine is sure that Lea will follow Isabelle to a new home when the latter marries; there is little reason to believe, however, that Madame Danzard will ever allow her daughter to wed.

Sister is the sort of low-budget film that betrays its genesis as a play in almost every scene. Still, the claustrophobia resulting from its limited sets and cast is in this case appropriate: The maids are rarely permitted to leave the house, while the Danzards can abandon their parlor but seldom do. Such a scenario requires more carefully modulated performances, however, than the ones Meckler has summoned. A paragon of quiet bourgeois malignancy, Walters’ crisply odious Madame Danzard is exemplary. Richardson and May’s sisters, however, seem to have come not merely from another class but from another movie altogether.

Lea in particular always seems to be breathing heavily about something or other, whether it’s her boss’s recriminations or her sister’s caresses; hot sex or a too-hot iron summon similar responses from her. Coming from women who’ve been trained to be invisible, the sisters’ hysteria is unconvincing (even if the actual Christine did spend the final years of her life in an asylum). Meckler tries to render ominous such domestic annoyances as an ever-dripping faucet, but the inevitable crackup—already teased by the flash-forward that opens the film—doesn’t have much impact. Sister is better at depicting bottled-up passions than it is at setting them free.