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The film version of Stephen King's 'The Green Mile' is a long walk down a short pier.

By Mark Jordan

DECEMBER 20, 1999:  Toward the end of The Green Mile, Frank Darabont's screen adaptation of Stephen King's serialized novel of the same name, an aged Paul Edgecomb, a former prison guard played by Tom Hanks, likens the title passage, a stretch of linoleum leading from death row to the electric chair, to life itself. We all have our own green mile to walk with death waiting at the end, Edgecomb tells us, and for some the mile seems longer than it does for others. It's an analogy that also could be applied to this, at times, seemingly endless film.

Set largely in a Depression-era Southern prison, this fable is told by Edgecomb in flashback. In the here and now, he is a resident of a retirement home and is prone to sneaking out for long, mysterious walks. When one day Edgecomb becomes inconsolably upset while watching Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dance "Cheek to Cheek," he begins to reveal his secrets to his girlfriend Elaine Connelly, secrets whose origins lie in his stint as leader of Cold Mountain Penitentiary's death-row detail. There Edgecomb and his men — Brutus Howell (David Morse), Dean Stanton (Barry Pepper), and Harry Terwilliger (Jeffrey DeMunn) — watch over men facing their final days with stern but understanding gazes. While they keep their charges in line, with violence if necessary, they also help them cope with their fates and take care of their final needs, until ultimately walking them to the chair and throwing the switch.

In 1935, a number of new faces enter this ordered world. The new guard on the detail is Percy Wetmore (Doug Hutchison), a snively, cruel beneficiary of the spoils system who has an unsettling desire to see a man fry. Among the new inmates on the mile is "Wild Bill" Wharton, a homicidal lunatic. And then there is Mr. Jingles, an uncommonly courageous and talented mouse who has set up quarters along the green mile and is eventually adopted by one of the inmates, Eduard Delacroix (Memphian Michael Jeter).

But it is John Coffey (Michael Clark Duncan) who will most change the lives of all the men who live and work and die on the mile. A giant man-child with no discernible past, Coffey seems like a simple innocent; he even asks Edgecomb if they keep any lights on at night because he is afraid of the dark. But he is a man of imposing, even threatening size, and he has been convicted of a brutal crime. When the two Detterick girls vanished from their home, leaving a bloody trail in their wake, a search party turned up Coffey clutching their lifeless bodies by a riverbed.

But as first Mr. Jingles and later Edgecomb himself discovers, there is more to Coffey than appearances. He has a special gift that will eventually touch everyone on the mile, and provide the guards with a crushing dilemma as they face the prospect of having to execute "one of God's miracles."

The Green Mile is just the second feature film from Darabont, whose last movie, 1994's The Shawshank Redemption, was also a prison film adapted from a Stephen King story. ("Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption" was one of four novellas collected in the book Different Seasons; two of the collection's other stories were also turned into movies — "Apt Pupil" in 1998 and "The Body" as Stand By Me in 1986.) But despite sharing an author, a setting, and a screenwriter/director, the two films are very different. Whereas Shawshank took a relatively gritty, realistic look at prison life, The Green Mile is almost pure fantasy. And though it ends on something of a down note, it is a fairly conventional story, where heroes are rewarded, villains are punished.

Though in recent years he has moved away from the strictly tell-me-a-scary-story tales that made him famous, King is still, and likely for a long time to be, considered a hack. Though his prose is often beautiful, his plots enthralling, his characters engaging if not always fully developed, the fault with King is the profound lack of profundity in his work. While he can tug all the emotional strings expertly — making his audience laugh, scream, or cry at will — there never seems to be much of a scheme behind it all. It is all for its own sake. Less a hero's journey that a roller-coaster ride.

It was a problem that also plagued Shawshank, though there it didn't seem to matter as much because the plot built to such a brilliant, dizzying, out-of-nowhere conclusion. There are no such surprises in The Green Mile. For most of the film's three hours, Darabont and his cast give it their best. The film is technically perfect — solidly scripted, handsomely photographed, and well edited. And the performances are uniformly superb. Hanks will probably get another best actor nomination, but who to choose among this superb cast for best supporting actor? Duncan? Jeter? My personal choice is Morse, a seasoned character player best known from the television show St. Elsewhere. Though others have flashier parts here, Morse as always, gives a quiet, dead-on performance that helps anchor the film.

Unfortunately, all their work seems for naught, as the film's conclusion fails to deliver the emotional payoff the preceding hours have promised. It is, to be sure, a dazzling roller-coaster ride, full of surprises, horror, tears, and — amazingly for a film set on death row — a great deal of humor. But ultimately it is just a roller-coaster ride, and the resonance of its thrills lasts only as long as it takes to walk to the cotton-candy stand.


Guinevere

Cornelius (Connie) Fitzpatrick's brooding, dark eyes stared at the nubile nymph before him. Barely old enough to drive, but old enough to know better, Harper Sloane coyly dropped her head and fluttered with anticipating lust. As her corset grew tighter, she reached for Connie's wrinkled but wiser hand. He took it and pressed it to his mouth. Her fingertips slid into the opening of his white shirt while her bosoms. …

Okay, put this trash down. This is the Flyer, not Joan Collins. We like to think we write about better rubbish than that. But apparently Audrey Wells isn't as choosy about the films she directs. Guinevere is the second cinematic effort from Wells (the first being The Truth about Cats and Dogs) and her most Harlequin. Stephen Rea portrays Connie, an Irish bohemian with a penchant for pretty young things. Sarah Polley, most recently seen in Go, is the last Lolita in his long line of underage lovers. Humbert Humbert can eat his heart out. Connie has bedded a dozen or more women who could be his daughter, acting as a daddy figure to them all because — of course — they come from well-to-do but emotionally vacant homes. When five of Connie's hens from the past come home to roost, they discover that each one was not the only woman he plucked. And hardest to swallow — to each one of them he gave the nickname of Guinevere, the tragic mistress of Sir Lancelot.

Throughout most of the film, Polley as Harper Sloane suffocates under the oppressive dominance of her mother, an unhappy and stereotypical bourgeois mother. Actress Jean Smart is no Joan Crawford, but she pulls off the mommie dearest act without seeming too contrived. Although she suffers from many long table dinners of silence and subtle insults, during which her sister is spiteful and her father wishing he were somewhere else, it's hard to feel sorry for Harper. She's wealthy and she will likely attend Harvard Law School like the rest of the Sloane minions. Her sighs of "God, why must I be so misunderstood?" ring of Clueless exasperation, not genuine Menendez high-life peril. Why should it be earth-shattering and plot-worthy that this young woman is looking for a distraction in an older, so-called dangerous man?

Treated as a comedy, this film does work. When Connie calls Harper "Guinevere," she has already moved in with him and agreed to learn photography. She's constantly in awe of his knowledge. Her mouth slightly gapes at each quote he utters from Sartre and French philosopher Abelard as if she's auditioning for a Winter Fresh gum commercial. Of course, Connie seems more learned and more sophisticated. He's 30 years older than her and he's an artiste! An artiste who is weathered and jaded by life. Okay, so he's dead broke, a gambler, a heavy drinker, temperamental, and emotionally troubled; he's still pretty darn appealing to girls who have been told they are duty bound to hook up with a dud investment banker who wears sweater vests.

Connie is Fabio for every spoiled rich, sexually frustrated girl. The sweet irony — and this is where the dark laughter comes in if you can sit through Guinevere's endless clichés — is that Harper has run to someone else who does not teach her about life. Connie manipulates her just like everyone else did, only in a different way. But both lovers lose; Harper — like the other woman — will eventually leave Connie as Guinevere left King Arthur for Lancelot.

Although the film focuses on Connie and Harper's teacher/student relationship, an ensemble cast of women makes this a more entertaining film. While they are all beautiful, they are each far from perfect. They fall for Connie for similar reasons. Sans pasties, actress Gina Gershon plays Billie, the first woman who tells Harper that she is not unique. Harper is, she says, "not the first to be tutored." Despite Gershon's permanent pout, she doesn't overdramatize her moments with Harper. She acts with genuine concern rather than jealously toward Connie's latest prodigy. Jasmine Guy is Connie's first Guinevere, giving her character a steely resolve about her coming-of-age lover.

Guinevere doesn't appear low budget. Filmed mostly in Los Angeles, cinematographer Charles Minsky captured the city's combination of grit and glamour. In a final scene, when Connie has to beg for money and contemplates pawning his camera, Minsky allows the camera to drift in and out of a hotel room's dank shadows, intimating the fast-fading innocence of the lovers' May-to-December affair. Connie and Harper lie on a bed while Minksy angles his camera in a way that makes Connie appear physically and, in turn, more grown than Harper. Cleverly, Minsky turns his angle the other way, suggesting Harper has finally evolved into her own person.

And that's wonderful. When was the last time you heard someone talk about a film's cinematographer as if he were the star. The red carpet should be ripped from underneath everyone else's feet at Guinevere's premiere and laid down just for him. — Ashley Fantz


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