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Theron shines with 'Head in the Clouds'

September 17, 2004|Kevin Thomas | Times Staff Writer

In her first film released since winning an Oscar as serial killer Aileen Wuornos in "Monster," Charlize Theron has chosen a part that on the surface could not be more different from the seedy, desperate hard-scrabble Florida prostitute.

In Australian filmmaker John Duigan's romantic historical epic "Head in the Clouds," Theron's Gilda Besse is the daughter of a super-rich French champagne magnate (Steven Berkoff) and a rich American socialite. Gilda is a determinedly independent, free-spirited, uninhibited beauty who in 1932 is a Cambridge undergraduate. She'll soon land in Paris, where she finds her true calling as a photographer, having already given dancing, painting and even Hollywood a try.

Although she does take photography seriously, she lives for pleasure. When at long last she looks beyond herself, she emerges as fearless and unbending as Wuornos was in defending herself from behind bars. Once again, Theron shines as a strong, courageous and controversial woman. Like Wuornos, Gilda has a fatalistic view of life, and she remains maddeningly indifferent about the rise of fascism. But her beauty, spontaneity, wit and open sexuality make her hard to resist.

Although Gilda is a meaty role for Theron, the actress is better than "Head in the Clouds." Theron's admirers ultimately may feel rewarded for their patience, but the film takes a long, long time to kick in with its survey of the turbulent years in Europe from 1932 to 1944.

A New Australian Cinema pioneer, Duigan has made such memorable films as "Mouth to Mouth," "Winter of Our Dreams" and "Flirting," in which he revealed a mastery of intimate drama with an ability to draw inspired portrayals from his cast. However, in working on an epic scale as Duigan does here, his understated style lapses too often into the conventional. He is covering very familiar emotional, social and historical terrain -- the current "Bright Young Things" does it better -- and for much of its two-hour running time "Head in the Clouds" lacks freshness and vitality.

On a rainy night at Cambridge, Gilda, already notorious for her affairs, seeks shelter from Guy (Stuart Townsend), who is working-class Irish and attending the university on a scholarship. He behaves like a gentleman, but doesn't resist for long. Several years later in Paris, he becomes Gilda's photographic assistant as well as lover. That her favorite model, Mia (Penelope Cruz), is also her lover proves no problem. Their menage a trois is shattered by the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, which prompts Mia, a trained nurse, to return home to serve in the Republican Army, with the socially conscious Guy joining the International Brigade. Gilda feels hurt and deserted, but declares airily, "There will always be wars -- you need to get rid of your guilt."

Guy and Mia are pretty colorless in contrast to the tempestuous Gilda, though Townsend and Cruz prove capable. The film benefits from a sweeping score.


'Head in the Clouds'

MPAA rating: R for sexuality, nudity and some violence

Times guidelines: Adult themes and situations

Charlize Theron...Gilda Besse

Stuart Townsend...Guy

Penelope Cruz...Mia

Thomas Kretschmann...Maj. Franz Bietrich

Steven Berkoff...Charles Besse

A Sony Pictures Classics presentation. Writer-director John Duigan. Producers Michael Cowan, Bertil Ohlsson, Jonathan Olsberg, Jason Piette, Andre Rouleau, Maxime Remillard. Executive producers Julia Palau, Matthew Payne. Cinematographer Paul Sarossy. Editor Dominique Fortin. Composer Terry Frewer. Costumes Marido Davignon. Production designer Jonathan Lee. Art director Gilles Aird. Set decorators Frances Calder, Jim Erickson. Running time: 2 hours, 1 minute.

At selected theaters.

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