Summer holidays just wouldn't be complete without a John Grisham bestseller to read on the beach. So it's not surprising to find an adaptation of one of his throw-away thrillers at the multiplex. But this is altogether darker fare: director Robert Altman has taken the bare plot of the novel and fleshed it out with some intriguing characters, a gloomy Savannah backdrop (complete with rapidly approaching monsoon) and flashes of savage humour.
The atmosphere is relentlessly black; most of the action occurs long after sun-down and the city streets are constantly sodden with rain. As Branagh's lawyer is sucked into Mallory's none-too-happy life, the world around him becomes wetter and wetter. The symbolism of this is hard to miss: two important final scenes occur in a swamp and onboard a boat during a torrential downpour, with Magruder's field of vision literally as obscured as his mind.
Branagh gives a surprising performance as the anti-hero lawyer, with Deep South accent intact. For the most part he comes across as weak and loathsome, but his flawed nature makes him much easier to identify with. His character is a complicated one; divorced from his wife, he still tries to maintain some show of normality for his children's sake. Yet he sabotages his burgeoning relation-ship with co-worker Harlan by lusting after something more mysterious in the form of Mallory.
Magruder's obsession with the waitress is shown clearly from the first scene, with the camera following her around the room as his eyes would. It continues later in one long take, as he enters her house and watches her move from one location to another, finally undressing in the bedroom.
As Mallory, Embeth Davidtz (Army Of Darkness, Schindler's List) is altogether more mysterious. One moment she's controlling and willing Magruder to imprison her spooky father, the next she's sobbing in his arms as she recounts the fairytale of The Gingerbread Man, who was gobbled up by the fox when he tried to run away. Petite, and with dark, elfin looks, she plays up to the little girl lost image to attract the lawyer's attention. Yet there is cold calculation behind her seemingly free nature, and Magruder is the last to suspect it.
Daryl Hannah, as the down-trodden partner in the law firm, tries to break the ever-enduring blonde bombshell image by appearing with glasses and mousy brown locks. Such a blatant character disguise would have merely been laughable had she not been able to justify her image with an impressive performance. Like-wise, Famke Janssen plays against type; the leather-clad GoldenEye villainess is almost unrecognisable as a desperate alcoholic. But it's Downey Jr who steals the show. His sleazy, knowing PI, with a girl in every bar, is a complete scene-hogger - and he knows it. Altman gave him a part that was worth staying out of trouble for, and he repaid the debt by keeping clean throughout the shoot.
The only disappointment is the ending. After all the twists and the relentless darkness, the finale is trite; as predictably over-dramatic as any TV cop show. Altman is ultimately limited by his material, which, considering he fought the studio for this final cut, is a shame.