Dir/scr Robert Towne. US. 2005. 117mins.

Robert Towne returns with an evocative, nuancedadaptation of John Fante's Depression-era novel Ask The Dust, avisually lustrous and imaginatively staged film that is given piercing depth offeeling from leads Colin Farrell and Salma Hayek.

Fante's autobiographical 1939 work was a dominant literaryinfluence on Towne's greatest achievement, his script for Roman Polanski's Chinatown.His new picture, a story of love, loss and quietly aching desperation, returnsto the director's recurrent theme of prickly, defiant individuals caught in thetragic underside of Hollywood ambition. It's not a post-modern work like saythe Coen brothers' Barton Fink.

Remarkably, the film wasshot in South Africa, with 1930s Los Angelesbeautifully conjured through artfully drawn sets, stylised backdrops andcomputer imagery. Consequently at times it feels as though it were unfolding ona set, though the effect only heightens the appreciation of, and superb recreationof, classic, old Hollywood.

The movie plays on largethemes - race, class and artistic creativity - though the rhythm and tone istender, even quietly observed. Towne strives for Fante'slyrical realism, and the movie is emotionally deceptive in the way itconstantly frustrates logic and expectation.

A halting love story thatnever quite ignites, the movie is probably too tentative and enigmatic for mainstreamcrowds, and despite the artistry and seriousness, its down beat is a clearturnoff. Ask TheDust kicked off the Santa Barbara Film festival and opensin the US on March 17 through Paramount Classics. A more receptive audience isprobably going to be found in Europe, particularly because of Farrell and Hayek.

Arturo Bandini(Farrell, looking thin and impressive), is Fante'salter ego, a sweet, good-natured striver emotionallyscarred by the strong anti-Italian prejudice he encountered growing up inColorado.

Avid to find his style andvoice as a young writer while experiencing thrill and pleasure in Los Angeles,circa 1934, Bandini lives in a one-room hotel, at theAlta Loma, in Bunker Hill, surrounded by a group of beautiful dreamers.

Like most Towneprotagonists, he carries a privileged aura of rebellion and determination. Hissponsor is the great iconoclastic writer and editor HLMencken (the voice of film historian and biographer Richard Schickel).Towne is not afraid to draw him in less than flattering ways, painting him ascallow, emotionally needy, sullen and strangely withdrawn.

At the start, down to hisfinal nickel, Bandini is jolted by his encounter withCamilla (Hayek), a beautiful Mexican waitress. "You're vulgar, loud and angry,"she says. The strange, discursive movement of their relationship grounds themovie emotionally. Early on Bandini is strangelyunable to connect with her earthy provocations. He insults her, condescends toher or acts stupidly during their first sexual encounter during a beautifullyshot ocean rendezvous.

Jealous of her relationshipwith a bartender (Kirk), he falls into the clutches of Rita (Menzel), a beautiful, tragically scarred Jewish princess.

Towne's best known scripts (The Last Detail, Shampoo) centred on male vanity and bravado, though ever since hisfirst work as a director, Personal Best(1982), he has shown himself as a marvellously sympathetic and revealingdirector of women.

Playing alternate variationson the tragic heroine, Hayek and Menzel areheartbreaking, drawn with an edge, volatility and tenderness that gather a colourfuland vibrant poignancy and depth.

Caleb Deschanel'scinematography is both haunting and lilting, swooning in the radiant light,though compelling, even terrifying, in the soft-register of the night. Dennis Gassner's elegant, burnished production design is also aknockout.

The final sections of Ask The Dustare a bit too diffusive and distracted, the plot jumping from place to place,and it dilutes the power and suggestiveness of much of what is good andoriginal about the movie.

Towne makes his livingwriting scripts such as Days Of Thunder or Mission:Impossible. Realising this long deferred dream project, Ask The Dusk isfinally about the ineffable. It is a powerful, welcome reminder of hispeculiar, idiosyncratic talent.

Production companies
Cruise/Wagner Productions
Capitol Films
VIP 3 Medienfonds
Ascendant Production

International sales
Capitol Films

US distribution
Paramount Classics

Executive producers
Redmond Morris
Mark Roemmich
David Selvan
Andreas Schmid
Andy Grosch
Chris Rogers

Tom Cruise
Paula Wagner
Don Granger
Jonas McCord
from the novel by John Fante

Caleb Deschanel

Production design
Dennis Gassner

Robert K Lambert

Ramin Djawadi
Heitor Pereira

Main cast
Colin Farrell
Salma Hayek
Donald Sutherland
Eileen Atkins
Idina Menzel
Justin Kirk
Jeremy Crutchley
Richard Schickel