New York — At one point in ``The Wild Duck'' a man tears a letter to pieces. Later he changes his mind and lets his wife paste it together again. That's what happens to Henrik Ibsen's fine play in the new movie version from Australia -- only some of the pieces got misplaced between the ripping and reassembling. Rarely has a classic drama lost so much coherence on the cutting-room floor.
You can still see the bones of the story about a rich family, a poor family, their intermingled secrets, and a wimpy do-gooder whose meddling causes a suicide. But the play's flow has been chucked out the window in a slice-and-dice attempt to shorten and ``tighten'' the action. At a muddled 95 minutes, the result is choppy at best, laughable at worst, and no match for the more responsible adaptation that West German director Hans W. Geissendorfer served up a few years ago.
This is a pity, because the production shows promise. From the spotty evidence on the screen, Jeremy Irons gives a fierce and funny performance as the poor householder; Arthur Dignam has grim intensity as the misguided idealist; and Liv Ullmann brings a few radiant moments to her fractured portrait of a woman with a past. Also distinctive is the moody glow of Peter James's cinematography.
But these virtues can't lift the picture from its murky swamp of misjudged trimming and mistimed editing. After a nice start with his debut feature, the underrated ``Storm Boy,'' director Henri Safran has become a cropper. ``The Wild Duck'' is a turkey.