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Barely Down Under

If D.H. Lawrence ever were to get a film past the censors, Sirens might be it. Ripe with explicit nudity and suggestive encounters, the movie hearkens to The Rainbow and Women in Love. Yet because the sexuality expresses a spiritual hedonism defying repressive social mores, the film is more beautiful than erotic. Unfortunately, Sirens, written and directed by John Duigan, has little of Lawrence's psychological depth. Like Duigan's recent adaptation of Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea, Sirens is great to look at, but all it does is create a lovely, sometimes comic, tableau. Unlike his nicely observed The Year My Voice Broke, this doesn't breathe original life into its characters or make their philosophical positions anything more than dinner-party talk.

This superficiality is surprising. The movie is based on an incident in the life of Norman Lindsay, the controversial Australian artist of the 1930s who scandalized the Church with "The Crucified Venus," an etching of a voluptuous, naked woman sprawled on the cross. Instead of concentrating on the notorious Lindsay (Sam Neill), Duigan focuses on how Lindsay's bohemian household affects the young, prim clergyman Anthony Campion (Hugh Grant), who was dispatched by the Church to talk to the blasphemer, and Campion's equally fastidious wife, Estella (Tara Fitzgerald).

Since Lindsay's home is a magical place filled with Doric columns, ancient wisteria, a slithering snake and sculpted water fountains of bubbly nymphs, the do-gooders are sure to be tempted, if not awakened. Especially when three goddess-like artist's models, frequently naked and diversely frolicsome, are part of the welcoming party.

There are nice, if predictable, shots of the Australian outback and scenes with colorful locals. (Much of the film was indeed shot on location at Lindsay's sprawling estate.) If there's any surprise to Sirens, it's the equal-opportunity voyeurism. The art-film erotic highlights include not only a discreetly simulated lesbian love-in, but even a couple of fleeting seconds of a hunk enjoying full-frontal masturbation.

One of the statuesque models is Elle MacPherson, the Sports Illustrated swimsuit-edition queen. She plays a free-spirited, mischievous temptress, and the news isn't only that she's on-screen in all her naked glory but, more surprisingly, that she can act. So can all the performers -- but Duigan, with slow-motion shots of cascading rose petals and a blind Adonis riding bareback on a white horse, is heavy-handed in his direction of his own too-obvious script.

-- Peter Szatmary

Sirens.
Directed by John Duigan. Starring Sam Neill, Hugh Grant, Tara Fitzgerald, Elle MacPherson.

Rated R.
96 minutes.

 
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