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'Gentlemen' Tries to Put Mystery at Its Service


Is it the quality of the photography or the mood that makes first-time director John-Paul Davidson's "Gentlemen Don't Eat Poets" seem so murky? Either way, it makes this dreary black comedy more work than fun.

"Gentlemen," adapted by Patrick McGrath from his novel "The Grotesque," is in the British tradition of the gothic evil servant thriller, served with a dash of aristocratic bitters and a couple of dark twists. But it is not nearly clever enough to sustain even its relatively brief one-hour, 38-minute running time.

Reminiscent of both Joseph Losey's "The Servant" and Harold Prince's "Something for Everyone," "Gentlemen" tells of events at a crumbling estate in 1949 England after the arrival of a servant couple with a mysterious past. The estate is occupied by the Coal family, Sir Hugo (Alan Bates), a financially drained aristocrat preoccupied with the dinosaurs he reassembles in his barn; his American wife, Harriet (Theresa Russell), whose sexual needs have gone unattended for 10 years; and their grown daughter, Cleo (Lena Headey), who's about to become engaged to the effete would-be poet Sidney (Steven Mackintosh).

Into their lives come Fledge (Sting)--a butler with snaky eyes, a smug disposition and high ambitions--and his wife, Doris (Trudie Styler, Sting's real-life mate and the film's producer), who manages to whip up sensational meals despite her daylong drinking bouts. While Doris quaffs her way through the Coals' wine cellar, her husband is busy sabotaging what weakened connections still hold the family together.

To that end, Fledge seduces Harriet and Sidney, flaunting both affairs before Sir Hugo's bemused eyes. Hugo is happy to have Harriet reclaim her glow and, as a man of science, he's thrilled to be shown a reason for driving the useless poet out of his daughter's life.

But when Sidney disappears, with foul play suspected by the clumsy local constable, the question arises: Who would be most apt to do Sidney harm? Sir Hugo, Fledge, or the suspicious pig farmers (Jim Carter, Chris Barnes) lurking about? And why is the Coals' ham suddenly tasting so gamy?

Beyond its athletic lovemaking, "Gentlemen Don't Eat Poets" plays like a cheap homage to "Alfred Hitchcock Presents." It telegraphs its punch lines well in advance and has exhausted its wit by the final anticlimactic note.

What the film does have is a wonderful, full-throated performance by Bates, an actor we don't see often enough these days. Bates has a great time lurching around in his larger-than-life character. Sir Hugo is half bombastic and half mad, a man determined to add his own luster to his storied family history, even if it is with some cockeyed theory about dinosaurs having been birds.

Sting does well enough with the one-note Fledge, and Headey adds moments of common grace as Cleo. But there aren't enough of those moments of grace, not to mention humor or originality, to make "Gentlemen Don't Eat Poets" any kind of a feast.

* MPAA rating: R for sexuality and some gore. Times guidelines: Adult themes will bore most teenagers.


'Gentlemen Don't Eat Poets'

Alan Bates: Sir Hugo Coal

Sting: Fledge

Theresa Russell: Harriet Coal

Lena Headey: Cleo Coal

Trudie Styler: Doris

A Xingu Films Production, released by Live Entertainment. Director John-Paul Davidson. Producer Trudie Styler. Screenplay Patrick McGrath, adapted from his novel "The Grotesque." Cinematography Andrew Dunn. Production design Jan Roelfs. Costumes Colleen Atwood. Music Anne Dudley. Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes.

* Exclusively at the Cineplex Beverly Center, La Cienega at Beverly Boulevard, (310) 652-7760, and Edwards South Coast Plaza, 3410 S. Bristol St., Costa Mesa, (714) 546-2711.

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