Taking its cues from the light-saturated and repressed world of Wim Wenders' Paris, Texas, Leo is a downbeat drama that tackles themes of regret, betrayal and loss. In its best moments it looks stunning, the dreamlike visuals lending a mesmerising quality. Take the scene where we first meet Stephen (Joseph Fiennes): the sun beats down, glinting off jail-fence razor wire, establishing the film's beauty from the get-go.
Full marks to first-time helmer Mehdi Norowzian and DoP Zubin Mistry for establishing mood, then. Now if only the split-narrative script and characterisation were a match for the visual atmospherics. Instead, too much here is self-consciously literary - - everything's clever and distancing when it should be heartfelt and affecting.
Of the two entwining stories, the taciturn Stephen's tale works best, with Fiennes bringing a dignified vulnerability to his traumatised murderer. By night, Stephen scribbles away at a memoir; by day, he toils as a busboy in a cheap diner run by decent-but-tough Vic (Sam Shepard).
Complications arrive in the form of the vicious Horace (Dennis Hopper, turning out yet another variation of his Blue Velvet nutjob). There's a silver lining, though: if Stephen can face down Horace, maybe he can also overcome the ghosts of his past.
The second narrative is more problematic, as English graduate Mary Bloom (Shue) struggles with guilt over the deaths of her husband and daughter. But Mary's descent into drunken bitterness never convinces, the contrast between her previously idyllic life and miserable post-widowhood existence being over-emphasised.
By the time the two narratives knot together in an oh-so-predictable fashion, Norowzian's meandering drama has long run out of puff, brought to its wobbling knees by the burden of contrivances. Perhaps the filmmakers should've heeded Mary's remark to young Leo: ""You've read every book in the goddamn house. You'll regret that later.""
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Looks gorgeous but lacks emotional heart. If only the director had paid as much attention to characterisation as he did to framing the landscapes.