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Friday, July 02, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
By Moira Macdonald
A filmmaker can do a lot worse than to focus on the face of Helen Mirren: those refined, angular bones; that queenlike stillness; that ever-so-slightly disdainful look, as if she knew more than she was willing to share with the camera.
All the high points in Pieter Jan Brugge's otherwise tepid thriller "The Clearing" belong to her, as she expertly plucks the strings of Eileen Hayes, a wealthy woman whose perfectly ordered life is suddenly transformed the day her husband, Wayne (Robert Redford), is kidnapped.
So while it's a pleasure to find Mirren at the center of a movie and refreshing to see a movie centered around a grown-up couple the rest of "The Clearing" doesn't quite live up to her standards.
There's a generic, sometimes listless feel to the movie, as Brugge keeps his characters at arm's length. His camera meticulously observes the empty lives of this couple, registering the glossy surfaces and sleek décor of their home as Eileen spends her days swimming and shopping, while Wayne heads off in his Lexus to work at the car-rental empire he founded.
But we don't see much of them other than registering a certain coolness between the couple before Wayne is whisked away in that very Lexus by Arnold Mack (Willem Dafoe), a nervous former employee.
The movie quickly switches into two parallel stories (told, a tad confusingly, in different time periods): Wayne, alone in a remote woods with the stranger, tries to understand who Arnold is and why he has been targeted; Eileen copes with the FBI, the arrival of their two grown children and the ransom demands.
There's a spareness to the filmmaking that's appealing: Brugge doesn't go for the sudden scare or the cheap shot. But where he falters is where the heart of the film should be: We should care about these people but, despite the best efforts of Mirren and Redford, we don't.
Perhaps it's the movie's ambiguous attitude toward their wealth; perhaps it's the very well-bred, calm tone of it all. "The Clearing" is, at times, the movie equivalent of the Hermès scarves Eileen wears: tasteful and elegant, yet entirely unadventurous.
But it's still worth a look, for the pleasures of Mirren's peerlessly dry performance. When an FBI agent asks Eileen about a female employee of Wayne's, her response "My husband had an affair with her" is so cool it could chill wine. Eileen, as written, is almost too perfectly controlled; you have to watch Mirren's eyes carefully to find this woman's spirit. "The Clearing" doesn't fully celebrate her talent, but it'll do until the next Mirren film comes along.
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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