Fatal And Foolish Obsessions

directed by Louis Malle from Josephine Hart's best seller, is superb moviemaking-but not exactly a superb movie. It's probably as good a screen adaptation (written by David Hare) of Hart's swank tale of tragic obsession as is possible. On every technical level-editing, scoring, cinematography, production design and costumes-the work is impeccable. And it's brilliantly acted. Jeremy Irons plays Stephen Fleming, an elegant and repressed member of Parliament who falls instantly and uncontrollably into an erotic entanglement with his son's mysterious girlfriend. Rupert Graves is the son; Miranda Richardson is Stephen's wife, and Juliette Binoche is the fatally attractive, "damaged" Anna, whose powerful sexuality unleashes chaos upon her father-and-son lovers. (And unleashed yet another NC-17 ratings flap. It's now trimmed to an R.)

Malle is a mesmerizing storyteller. He unfolds this disturbing, violently sexual and luxuriously appointed tale of amour fou with coolly gripping precision. But even as the movie holds you in its spell, you may not believe a word of it. For the catalyst at the dubious heart of all this primal thrashing about, the oh-so-enigmatic Anna, is a literary fantasy figure impossible to take. Seductive as Binoche is, there's no way she can make Anna real: she's Hart's fantasy of a male fantasy of a femme fatale. It's to Malle and his gifted company's credit that this posh bodice-ripper often comes close to achieving its tragic ambitions. But the stylish "Damage" is a lot easier to enjoy if one doesn't feel compelled to take it seriously.

In 1984 Augusto and Michaela Odone-an Italian economist with the World Bank in Washington, D.C., and his American wife, a linguist-were informed that their 5-year-old son, Lorenzo, was suffering from a rare and fatal disease, adrenoleukodystrophy (ALD). There was no cure, and the doctors offered no hope: at most their son had two years to live. Lorenzo is now 14, because these two remarkable people refused to listen to the medical authorities, and set out on their own, without scientific training, to find a cure. This astonishing, true story has been made into a ferociously intense drama by former physician George Miller, the director of the brilliantly kinetic "Mad Max" trilogy. You could trust that Miller would not shoot this tale in the sentimental style of a TV movie of the week, and he hasn't. He has made an impassioned medical thriller as energized as an action movie, as emotionally and stylistically flamboyant as the operas heard on the soundtrack.

Fair warning: this is a harrowing, painful journey. Miller does not spare us the agony that young Lorenzo endured. (He's played primarily by the haunting Zack O'Malley Greenburg.) As his mother, a woman so obsessed with saving her son that she becomes almost inhuman in her fanaticism, Susan Sarandon gives a fierce, moving performance. As Augusto, the usually effortless Nick Nolte is working with a big handicap: he couldn't be less Italian, and it takes some forbearance getting beyond his strained accent to the passion underneath. ALD may be a relatively obscure disease, but the questions this movie raises about the medical establishment, drug testing and the clash between science and compassion cannot fail to evoke the battles raging over AIDS. "Lorenzo's Oil" is strong medicine indeed.

Jack-of-all-theatrical-trades Kenneth Branagh moves from Shakespeare to "Dead Again" to this Big Chilly comedy in which six old college chums, 10 years on and much the worse for wear, reunite for New Year's at an English country estate. The host, who has a hidden agenda, is the diffident, bisexual Peter (Stephen Fry), busy fending off the inappropriate amorous siege of his lonely old friend Maggie (Emma Thompson). Branagh is the self-loathing Andrew, a once promising playwright turned Hollywood-sitcom writer, who arrives with the star of his show, his vain American wife, Carol (Rita Rudner). She is a neurotic compendium of killjoy California compulsions-appalled, of course, by the drinking, smoking, fat-eating English. The sophisticated Sarah (Alphonsia Emmanuel) has dragged her latest bad bet of a lover to the party, a crude married actor (Tony Slattery) everyone despises. And the marriage of Roger and Mary (Hugh Laurie and Imelda Staunton) is under severe strain caused by the death of one of their children. Written by stand-up comic Rudner and her husband, Martin Bergman, "Peter's Friends" is brisk, funny, disarmingly performed-and skin deep. Would Andrew ever be married to Carol? Why would Sarah put up with her cloddish beau for a minute? What do these people have in common, anyway? The clever, facile "Peter's Friends" doesn't bear much scrutiny, and its attempts at pathos are more opportunistic than earned. Still, Branagh knows how to put on a lively show. Any movie that provides this many laughs can be forgiven a lot.