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THE SECRET IN THEIR EYES

(Drama. Starring Ricardo Darin, Soledad Villamil, Guillermo Francella, Pablo Rago, Javier Godino. Directed by Juan Josi Campanella. Cert 16)

Based on a successful novel by Eduardo Sacheri -- who co-wrote the screenplay -- The Secret in Their Eyes brings several strong story strands into play, with director Juan Josi Campanella doing a magnificent job juggling the movie's differing moods. This is a film where there is a lot going on but all of it remains relevant to the central story, and all of it is very good indeed.

On the surface The Secret in Their Eyes is a procedural thriller, with retired legal investigator Benjamin Esposito (Ricardo Darin, from Nine Queens and XXY) making unsuccessful attempts to begin work on a novel about a case which has preyed on his mind since the mid-70s. The action flashes back to Buenos Aires in 1974, when Benjamin and his laconic alcoholic assistant Pablo Sandoval (Guillermo Francella) are tasked with investigating the brutal rape and murder of a young, newly married teacher at the same time as they meet their new superior, the beautiful, Cornell-educated Irene (Soledad Villamil).

Benjamin is instantly attracted to Irene but finds himself becoming obsessed with finding the killer, especially after he successfully overturns another investigator's attempt to pin the murder on a couple of Bolivian builders who worked in the area.

The film unfolds like a devilishly clever thriller, with the exchanges between Esposito and Sandoval providing most of its lighter moments, several of which are hilarious. Lurking beneath the surface, too, is a look at the country's judicial system, whereby principles of justice can be overlooked in the face of expediency, which would become more deadly as the country slipped towards fascism and a military coup in 1976.

Propelled forward in their investigation by a genuine desire to help the victim's husband (Pablo Rago) they eventually track down the murderer (Javier Godino), but just as you think everything has been wrapped up there's an unexpected but entirely logical twist.

The Secret in Their Eyes keeps the viewer intrigued by letting slip little details which achieve the 'Aha!' effect when the reveal comes and every aspect of the story is beautifully served by the cast. The chemistry between Darin and Villamil is clear from the start, while Francella almost steals the show as the brilliant drunk Sandoval.

The director deserves exceptional praise, too, not only for keeping a tight rein on such a rich and detailed story but for two utterly gripping scenes. In one silent sequence in a lift he conjures up a scenario so dripping with menace it will chill you to the bone, while there's a truly spectacular chase section, where Esposito and Sandoval finally catch the murderer in a crowded football stadium. Campanella has managed to make the sequence look as if it's been achieved in a single take, and it is breathtaking.

When you add a virtuoso piece of action like that to a film which already ticks all the boxes with its themes of justice, revenge, love, loss and the corruption of power, and add in pitch-perfect performances from a cast playing thoroughly believable characters, then it's no wonder the Academy gave this wonderful film its supreme accolade earlier this year. Proper order too. HHHHH

THE LAST AIRBENDER

(Fantasy. Starring Noah Ringer, Dev Patel, Nicola Peltz, Jackson Rathbone, Cliff Curtis, Aasif Mandvi. Directed by M Night Shyamalan. Cert PG)

Following the string of clunkers that were The Village, Lady in the Water and The Happening, the once-hot M Night Shyamalan finds himself signed up to Nickelodeon and adapting a cartoon fantasy series which was hugely popular on US TV. Of course, this being Shyamalan he has to take the full writing credit for previously broadcast material, which is just as well because that means he can also shoulder the blame for this mess.

I've not seen the TV programme, but I'm guessing that even a kiddies' cartoon series would make more sense and have more characterisation that this fantasy farrago, so ill-judged and sloppily conceived that any hope of the film developing anything resembling a flow is scuppered by characters having to stop every other minute to inform the audience just what the hell is going on.

For the record, the film is set in a world where the kingdoms of Water, Fire, Earth and Air have lost their connection to the Spirit World through the disappearance of the Avatar, or Airbender, who can harness all the powers of the elements.

In his absence, the Fire Kingdom have been getting rather big for their jackboots, and when a pair of siblings from the Water world release a young boy from an ice bubble they discover that he is, in fact, the Avatar, prompting the Fire Lord to demand that he be captured. Yadda yadda.

It all makes very little sense, and matters aren't helped by the fact that the actors deliver their wretched lines with all the enthusiasm of people who've been told that their next gig is appearing in a panto with Jedward. Of course, the film has been rinsed through the 3D machine in order to squeeze a few more quid from the punters.

The most disheartening aspect is that The Last Airbender took $130m at the US box office, and you don't need a sixth sense to guess that Shyamalan has very obviously teed up a sequel. God help us all. HIIII

THE REFUGE

(Drama. Starring Isabelle Carre, Louis-Ronan Choisy, Melvil Poupaud. Directed by Francois Ozon. Cert 15A)

This low-key but not unappealing arthouse movie is a two-hander in which pregnant heroin addict Mousse (Isabelle Carre) wakes up from an overdose to discover that her partner Louis (Melvil Poupaud) hasn't been so lucky. Determined to carry through with her pregnancy, despite the entreaties of her dead lover's family, she heads for a quiet seaside town where she's joined by Louis's gay brother Paul (Louis-Ronan Choisy) and an unlikely friendship develops. The story is beautifully filmed and the playing between Carre and Choisy raises proceedings above the raw material of the script. HHHII