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MOVIE REVIEW : 'Remedies': A Poignant High-Camp Romance : An imperious colonial woman is on the rise in a remote part of the British Empire. Games of sex and power are her tools.

July 20, 1994|KEVIN THOMAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

With their delirious "Desperate Remedies," which premiered at the recent Los Angeles International Gay & Lesbian Film & Video Festival, New Zealand filmmakers Stewart Main and Peter Wells have written a heady, operatic Victorian romance and played it on the screen absolutely straight. The result is high-camp pathos, alternately hilarious and poignant, in which the most elaborate artifice evokes a surprising, ever-increasing degree of genuine emotion.

Artistically, this is risky business indeed, like walking a high wire: a single misstep in tone and control and the entire fragile enterprise collapses. Happily, Wells and Main never stumble, and their film emerges as a glittery triumph, as amusing as an especially fanciful wedding cake or Rose Parade float.

"At a distant point of empire . . . in a town called Hope"--with those words the filmmakers take us into their stylized universe as the regal, imperious Dorothea Brook (Jennifer Ward-Lealand), dressed in blood red, proceeds swiftly by horse and buggy to meet a boat loaded with immigrants. She aims to spot a likely man to marry her younger sister (Kiri Mills), who has fallen into the clutches of her half-caste, onetime lover (Cliff Curtis), who keeps the sister, pregnant with his child, doped up on opium.

She locks gazes with a sexy, handsome, hairy-chested stud (Kevin Smith), seeking his fortune in the fictional New Britannia. Their mutual attraction is instant--never mind that Dorothea's current lover is her beautiful companion (Lisa Chappell), her assistant at her ritzy dress and hat shop. Meanwhile, an impoverished, ambitious local politico (Michael Hurst) is eager to marry Dorothea, promising in return a contract for 4,000 army uniforms needed for a land war that's under way.

In short order Main and Wells have turned loose a screen full of passionate, ruthless people quickly caught up in a series of power plays, with sex and the promise of riches as key weapons, that bring to mind the more sophisticated manipulators of "Les Liaisons Dangereuses." The appearance-is-everything dictates of Victorian propriety merely intensify the games these people play, giving them an extra kick. Yet each maneuver brings the relentlessly practical Dorothea to a moment of truth requiring her to make the choice she has so relentlessly avoided: whether to follow the dictates of her heart or her mind.

Main and Wells stir up unbridled passion in a world of deliberate artifice--primarily in the elegant black-and-red drawing room of Dorothea's mansion and Hope's seedy, rowdy waterfront saloon-bordello--and even an exotic opium den. Cinematographer Leon Narby, production designer David Coulson and costume designer Glenis Foster--some of her creations are notably naughty--have collaborated with Main and Wells to create a triumph of visual bravura, accompanied by Peter Scholes' suitably stormy score, which incorporates passages from Verdi's "La Forza del Destino," a key inspiration for the entire film.

The cast never falters in sustaining the extravagantly dramatic roles. Ultimately, through near-surreal means, Main and Wells elicit in "Desperate Remedies" a sense of psychological validity in regard to the entire rapacious colonial experience that rings truer than in more straightforward conventional depictions.

* MPAA rating: R, for some graphic sexuality . Times guidelines: Treatment of style, themes and sexuality intended for sophisticated adult audiences .

'Desperate Remedies'

Jennifer Ward-Lealand: Dorothea Brook

Kevin Smith: Lawrence Hayes

Lisa Chappell: Anne Cooper

Cliff Curtis: Fraser

Michael Hurst: William Poyser

Kiri Mills: Rose

A Miramax presentation. Writers-directors Stewart Main and Peter Wells. Producer James Wallace. Cinematographer Leon Narby. Editor David Coulson. Costumes Glenis Foster. Music Peter Scholes. Production designer Michael Kane. Art director Shane Redford. Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes.

* Exclusively at the Sunset 5, Sunset & Crescent Heights. (213) 848-3500.

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