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Latest Author On-Screen: Joseph Conrad

But a literary pedigree does little to help 'Swept From the Sea' overcome its limitations

Joseph Conrad isn't in the league of Henry James or Jane Austen when it comes to Hollywood movie adaptations, but lately he's been receiving a bit more attention than usual.

First came Christopher Hampton's version of "The Secret Agent," and now we have "Swept From the Sea," adapted from Conrad's story "Amy Foster" by Beeban Kidron, a British filmmaker who also works with American studios.

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Regrettably, both pictures lack the depth and vision of their literary sources, reducing the chance that other movie producers will jump on the Conrad bandwagon anytime soon.

Like the 1901 story that inspired it, "Swept From the Sea" tells the bittersweet tale of a young peasant woman who scrapes out a living on the Cornish coast of England, a region with much natural beauty but little in the way of learning or sophistication.

Amy's life is meager and tedious until she meets Yanko, a mysterious stranger who tumbled into the area after a stormy shipwreck.

Since he speaks a foreign tongue and reveals some unfamiliar habits - he hails from the Ukraine, a place few in Cornwall have ever heard of, much less taken an interest in - Yanko is written off by the local populace as an unpleasant oddity at best, a dangerous intruder at worst.

Long treated as boring and backward by her neighbors, Amy sympathizes with his outsider status, and soon the two misfits fall in love. This outrages the community, including Amy's father, who sides with reactionary conventions against the happiness of his own daughter.

Although the modest "Amy Foster" is hardly one of Conrad's most memorable works, he spins the yarn with his customary skill, etching a handful of effective characters and absorbing situations. The filmmakers would have done well to follow his example, bringing out the all-too-human ironies and contradictions that give the story its resonance. Instead they temper the often harsh experiences of Amy and Yanko with touches of romance and atmosphere that owe more to studio formulas than the rough-hewn Cornish coast.

This starts with the casting of the main character. As described by Conrad, the heroine has a "dull face ... squat figure ... scanty, dusty brown hair," with an "inertness of ... mind" to match. In the movie, this unprepossessing figure has magically become the winsome Rachel Weisz, a charismatic young actress whose on-screen magnetism is quite the opposite of anything Conrad had in mind. It's also hard to imagine how the locals could get so paranoid over Vincent Perez as Yanko, even if his foreign accent does stir up their xenophobic instincts.

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The strongest feature of "Swept From the Sea" is its handsome cinematography by Dick Pope, who's best known for several Mike Leigh films. There's also a solid supporting cast including Kathy Bates and Ian McKellen.

In the end, though, the picture fails to ring true on any level except that of movie-style romance. Kidron and screenwriter Tim Willocks would have fared better if they'd filmed "Amy Foster" as Conrad wrote it, no-nonsense title and all.

* Rated PG-13; contains sex and violence.

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