Head in the Clouds

Starring Charlize Theron, Stuart Townsend, and Penélope Cruz. Rating unavailable.

I really shouldn't have liked Head in the Clouds as much as I did. A period piece that doesn't spare the soap, it's far too glossy for its own good. Slow-moving, derivative, and decadent in a giggly, Cosmo girl sort of way, it provides ample evidence that they don't make wartime romances like they used to. And yet, somehow, the story of a beautifully groomed trio who form a warm-hearted love triangle grudgingly won me over. The three luminous principals (Charlize Theron, her real life partner, Stuart Townsend, and Penélope Cruz) make the Spanish Civil War look like an especially gruelling fashion shoot. But in the end, I sympathized with them more than I care to admit. Maybe I was just in the mood for the kind of ripe melodrama that features ruthless Nazis, plunging necklines, and power-smoking Frenchmen in berets.

Writer-director John Duigan (Sirens, The Year My Voice Broke) kicks off this sumptuous potboiler against the political hotbed of 1930s Europe. It's as if he's aiming for a steamy hybrid of A Farewell to Arms and Lillian Hellman's Julia, but when the film stumbles over his wooden dialogue it feels more like Danielle Steele with a social conscience. In fact, for a script that features an S & M whipping, a lesbian tango scene, and a generous helping of floor-grinding sex, things can get surprisingly stodgy.

Our story centres on the racy Gilda (Theron who, fresh from her Oscar-winning performance in Monster, cleans up real good). A rich hedonist who callously ignores the growing turmoil of prewar Paris, Gilda has one saving grace: the fierce loyalty she feels for her socially committed friends Guy (Townsend) and Mia (Cruz). Guy is an Irish activist and Mia is a Spanish nurse eager to return to her war-torn homeland. Each of them has been Gilda's lover at various times, but it's their abiding friendship that she prizes most. Only Gilda's stubborn selfishness in the face of Hitler's advance can upset things.

Saying any more would spoil a plot that's paper-thin to begin with. Fortunately, Theron's dazzling presence keeps things consistently watchable. (Even Cruz, playing an ex-stripper with a mysterious limp that comes and goes, emerges relatively unscathed.) But it's the grounded performance of Townsend that ultimately reminds us how much even the most predictable soap opera relies on genuine human emotion.