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MOVIE REVIEW : When 'The Advocate' Goes to Trial in the Middle Ages

August 24, 1994|PETER RAINER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Richard Courtois (Colin Firth), the Parisian lawyer in "The Advocate," is a medieval post-yuppie. Forsaking the big bad city for the villagey environs of Abbeville, he looks forward to defending the grateful peasantry and getting all idyllic.

But lawyer-haters will be glad to know that lawyers had it bad back then too. It turns out that Courtois underestimates how grody these villages (and villagers) can be. Abbeville is ruled by the Seigneur (Nicol Williamson), a merchant who specializes in pinched smiles and glazed gazes. He purchased his title--it's kind of like buying a black belt in karate--and the rule of law along with it. His prosecutor, Pincheon (Donald Pleasence), has that groggy, on-the-payroll look. When he squares off with Courtois in court, it's a tossup to see if he'll nod off before Courtois storms off.

What is it about Middle Ages movies that almost always provoke giggles? Maybe it's the way all that clanking and posturing clashes with modern acting styles. Maybe it's because Monty Python has made it just about impossible to look at the 15th Century on film without expecting John Cleese to totter about in armor. "The Advocate," written and directed by Leslie Megahey, makes the mistake of taking itself seriously--but not quite seriously enough. It makes a fuss about the conflict between civil and religious law, it tries for a You Were There quality. It keeps flashing title cards, for that Important Movie effect.

But it also seems as campy as those old Roger Corman Edgar Allan Poe pictures, with Williamson in the Vincent Price role. Courtois just happens to be boarding in what turns out to be a sort of hostel-brothel, which provides the opportunity for some explicit medieval nookie. Cleavage was big back then. There's also the requisite banquet eating scenes, with platters of cooked game and a sultry (is there any other kind?) Gypsy girl doing a dance of veils. You half expect Victor Mature and Anita Ekberg to show up. When Courtois and the Gypsy (Amina Annabi) have one of those it-can-never-be-I-am-not-of-your-world romances, we wait for the inevitable A Part of Me Stays With You parting.

*

The underpinnings of the plot concern the fact that, under medieval law, everything created by God was subject to his laws. So we're subjected to scenes in which Courtois calls rats to testify in a murder trial, but not the Jewish surgeon, without rights in this world, who discovered the body. (You half expect him to bemoan, "Hath not a Jew whiskers?")

It's not always clear if Megahey is aware of how risible this stuff is--if he was, why didn't he just turn it into a comedy? The actors do their best to keep their faces uncracked, but Williamson has a high old time acting parched and smarmy, Pleasence is ingratiatingly rheumy, and Firth holds the screen even when there's nothing to hold (which is often).

Ian Holm plays a priest who unofficially disbelieves the village's superstitions, and he's good enough to make you wish he was in something more amenable to his talents--like Shakespeare. Lysette Anthony, who was Sydney Pollack's airheaded squeeze in Woody Allen's "Husbands and Wives," is lively, with a bright, quacking laugh, in her role as the Seigneur's unmarriageable daughter.

You may have noticed that the ads for "The Advocate" are dredging up that old "don't tell the secret" chestnut from "Crying Game" fame. (Miramax released both.) Audiences and critics are supposed to keep quiet about who the Courtois' chief client is. Miramax would be wiser encouraging audiences and critics to refrain from revealing how mediocre the film is.

Since the identity of the client would appear to be the film's biggest--only--selling point, the marketing ploy seems particularly dunderheaded. And since, in any event, the identity is signaled from the opening credits, and revealed not long after, this "secret" business seems like a not terribly subtle way of coercing the press into pumping up the film's wanna-see quotient.

But we'll play along anyway. We just wanted to you to know that this ham-fisted attempt to squelch squealers is not strictly kosher.

\o7 * MPAA rating: R, for elements of strong sexuality. Times guidelines: It includes fairly graphic sex scene and shots of plague victims.

'The Advocate'

Colin Firth: Richard Courtois

Amina Annabi: Samira

Donald Pleasence: Pincheon

Nicol Williamson: The Seigneur

A Miramax presentation. Director Leslie Megahey. Producer David Thompson. Executive producer Michael Waring. Screenplay by Leslie Megahey. Cinematographer John Hooper. Editor Isabelle Dedieu. Costumes Anna Buruma. Art director Bruce Macadie. Running time: 1 hour, 51 minutes.

* In limited release at the Laemmle's Sunset 5, Sunset at Crescent Heights, West Hollywood; (213) 848-3500.

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