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'Free' shines, 'Orphans' lacks luster

Hollywood's penchant for glittering stars and extraordinary events has a tendency to limit the screen exposure of ordinary people. Independent and international movies help balance the equation. A vivid example is the British drama Orphans, directed by Peter Mullan, the fine actor who recently impressed American audiences in "My Name is Joe."

In his first movie as a director, Mullan deals not with orphaned children - this is no "Cider House Rules" clone - but with grown-ups discovering how ill-equipped they are to handle the emotional fallout from their mother's death. Before the funeral, her three Glasgow sons allow grief and anger to run away with them. Meanwhile their disabled sister faces challenges of her own.

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"Orphans" is not a happy tale. It's not very original, either, with its string of banal events that bring the clan closer together. The acting is consistently strong, though.

Mullan has a sharp eye for compelling images, often pulling his camera to a discreet distance that modifies the movie's potentially melodramatic excesses. He's a promising addition to the growing list of talented actors - Tim Roth, Gary Oldman, Sean Penn - who launched their directorial careers with stories of family strife.

There's more subtlety in Set Me Free, directed by La Pool, a French-Canadian filmmaker with a rising reputation. Hanna is a 13-year-old girl with very different parents - her father is an inward-looking Jew, her mother a Roman Catholic with a delicate disposition. There's also a schoolteacher who strikes Hanna as a role model who could change her life.

"Set Me Free," originally called "Emporte-moi," tells Hanna's coming-of-age story with imagination and restraint. The most exquisite scene occurs when she goes to the movies and sees Jean-Luc Godard's masterly "My Life to Live," a 1963 drama that touches her to the depths of her being with its sad revelation of life's bitter complexities. It's as fine a moment as any recent film has given us.

*'Orphans,' not rated, contains sex, violence, and extremely foul language. 'Set Me Free,' not rated, contains sexual innuendo and adult situations.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society