In films, it's a season for strong women

In the male-dominated movie business, strong roles for actresses have been all too rare lately. But a handful of new pictures could be signaling a turn for the better. First to arrive was ``Sweet Dreams,'' the biography of country singer Patsy Cline, with a hard-edged Jessica Lange performance in the spotlight. Now two more smart, capable women are on hand in ``Marie'' and ``Jagged Edge,'' starring Sissy Spacek and Glenn Close, respectively. ``Marie'' takes its story from the actual experiences of Marie Ragghianti, who drew national attention when she helped blow the whistle on corruption involving the Tennessee parole board. Far from being a heroic figure when we first meet her, she's a battered wife with a bleak future. But she can't see herself as a quitter or a loser. She goes to college, earns a degree, and wangles herself a job with the state government, helped by an old school chum. Trouble starts brewing when the chum asks for some irregular favors. Soon she's on the trail of a major scandal, and the bad guys are making very threatening gestures in her direction.

The plot has a good deal of natural drama and suspense, and Spacek makes the most of it, allowing her character to be vulnerable but never weak or wishy-washy. She also does a good job of balancing the professional and domestic aspects of the screenplay, which illustrates her strength and resolve not only in work situations but in challenges at home, too, including the illness of one of her children. ``Marie'' was directed by Roger Donaldson, who shows the same interest in emotional turbulence that mark ed his ``Smash Palace'' a few years ago. Jeff Daniels and Keith Szarabajka head a solid supporting cast.

``Jagged Edge'' begins with a hair-raising scene of imminent violence against a woman, and there's every reason to suspect we're in for two hours of sexist mayhem. So it's a welcome surprise when the movie turns into a classically shaped courtroom drama with a sharp-minded female at the hub of the story.

She's a former prosecutor who has given up criminal law because of misgivings about the fairness of the criminal-justice system. But she can't say no when an unusual new challenge presents itself: defending a wealthy newspaper magnate who's charged with savagely killing his wife. The situation becomes more complex when she falls in love with her client (a hackneyed gambit, but convincingly done) and finds it hard to juggle her conflicting emotions.

The film returns to its violent beginning via photographs of the murder, and late in the story there's a graphic verbal account of another sexually perverse crime. But most of ``Jagged Edge'' is as tactful as its material will allow, falling into the sophisticated tradition of courtroom pictures like ``Anatomy of a Murder'' and ``Witness for the Prosecution.'' Glenn Close is just right as the heroine, and Jeff Bridges gives an Oscar-caliber performance as the accused man. Also on hand is a steely Peter Coyote. The director was Richard Marquand, whose career ranges from ``Eye of the Needle'' to ``Return of the Jedi.'' His skill has never been more apparent than it is here.

Films made far from Hollywood are also depicting strong women these days. One such is ``Dreamchild,'' a sensitive and unconventional British drama. The heroine is Alice Hargreaves, the real-life Alice whom author Lewis Carroll regaled with his original ``Alice in Wonderland'' tales. But she's no longer a little girl in the 1930s, when the movie takes place; she's an old woman making her first trip to the United States for a celebration of Carroll's centenary. The film takes us into her memories, dreams,

and fantasies as she approaches the end of her life with courage and resilience despite the strangeness of her new surroundings.

``Dreamchild'' doesn't always work. The first dream sequence is childish, complete with fantastical creatures by Muppet artist Jim Henson. The heroine's emotional state changes too quickly and too often. And the love-story angle (a romance between her young traveling companion and a stereotyped American reporter) is trite. But the movie deals with subtleties of thought and feeling that are rarely approached in today's action-oriented cinema, and what could have been distasteful material -- including Car roll's repressed love for Alice as a girl -- is treated with consummate taste. Dennis Potter wrote the screenplay and Gavin Millar directed it, helped by Billy Williams's luminous camera work.

More offbeat yet is the latest offering of Jean-Luc Godard, the leading French filmmaker. ``Hail Mary'' is actually two films. First comes a short called ``The Book of Mary,'' directed by Anne-Marie Mi'eville, which sketches the daily life of a spunky little girl whose parents are breaking up. Then comes ``Hail Mary'' itself, about a young Swiss woman who becomes pregnant although she has not had sexual relations.

The basic parallel between her and Jesus' mother is clear, but little else in the movie is: Godard moves from the oblique to the obscure, tying the slim story into so many knots that only the gorgeous nature photography makes sense on its own terms. While it has drawn protests from religious organizations, ``Hail Mary'' seems to function more as a murky feminist metaphor than a statement on religious themes. In any case, its messages are so buried in arcane cinematics that they aren't likely to be widel y perceived.

In his passion for film, Godard has long believed that the most idiosyncratic thought processes will somehow be made plain if he splashes them across the screen with enough energy. But his visual discipline isn't matched by philosophical rigor. Like many of his lesser works, ``Hail Mary'' is a tantalizing enigma that few will take the trouble to penetrate.

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