Dir:Mike Nichols. US. 2004. 98mins.

Adouble love story with a brutally forthright view of modern relationships, thescreen version of British writer Patrick Marber's acclaimed stage play Closer,incisively directed by stage-to-screen expert Mike Nichols, is not a film forthe faint hearted. And that may prove to be a mixed blessing at the box officeand in the film's push for awards recognition. Because while sophisticatedadult audiences will be drawn to the scabrous content and impressive cast -headed by the much in demand Jude Law and the now more rarely seen JuliaRoberts - many mainstream cinemagoers will be put off by the bleak outlook andchilly feel of this provocative (and in the US R-rated) drama.

Columbiais set to release the film wide in the US on December 3, in the middle of apack of awards hopefuls. The star names should ensure a fairly strong openingbut keeping a broad audience coming in over subsequent weeks will be achallenge for the studio. So will persuading awards voters to consider the filmalongside more easily digestible works for the season's major prizes.

Closer may, however, be an easiersell in international markets, especially in European countries with morerelaxed sexual attitudes than the US. The play's reputation - since its 1997debut in London it has been produced in more than 100 cities around the worldand translated into 30 different languages - will also help internationally, aswill the presence of Law and fellow Brit Clive Owen, star of recentinternational hit King Arthur, in the cast.

Marber,who started out as a TV comedy writer, adapted his play for the screen himself,making changes that apparently included an alteration to the original ending.Structured as a series of one-on-one episodes separated by time gaps of monthsor even years, the story follows four strangers living in London as they meet,fall in love, betray each other, form new relationships and commit newinfidelities.

Law'sDan is a lowly journalist and aspiring novelist who initially falls for Alice(Portman, from Garden State and Cold Mountain), a mysterious,sensual American. Roberts' Anna is an American photographer who becomes Dan'sobsession but who marries Larry (Owen), a self-assured and unromanticdermatologist.

Thestory focuses on the turning points in the relationships: the meetings,reunions and charged confrontations when infidelities are revealed and sexualjealousy rears its ugly head. It's during the latter scenes that the filmreaches its crescendos, with moments of bruising emotional intensity andgraphic sexual dialogue.

Nicholsis perfectly suited to direct, given his track record with similar subjectmatter (see Who's Afraid Of Virginia Wolf' and Carnal Knowledge)and his experience filming stage plays, most recently with the acclaimed cableTV versions of Wit and Angels In America.

Heskilfully opens up the story just enough to make it cinematic but not so muchas to sacrifice intensity. A few external sequences give a flavour of theLondon setting, but most of the scenes are interiors (shot at the UK's Elstreestudios). The clipped dialogue and sparing use of music also help preserve someof the theatrical feel.

Whatthe film doesn't do is bring out much humour - even black humour - in thematerial. And more humour might have made the material more accessible for thebroad cinema audience.

Theperformances, of course, are crucial and at least a couple of them aresatisfyingly strong. The female performers get least to work with: Roberts - who joined the project only when first choiceCate Blanchett became pregnant - is subdued in the story's least developed roleand while Portman is certainly alluring, she too has a fairly static characterwith which to work.

Appearingin his fourth major release of the past few months, Law does a nice jobtransforming his character from shy geek into arrogant romeo into woundedlover.

Owen(who played Law's character Dan in the original London stage production of Closer)has the juiciest part by far and he takes the opportunity to give a scarilyintense performance, one that could give the film its best shot at awardrecognition. His head to head scene with Law is among the film's highlights andactually produce more sparks than most of the scenes between the story'svarious permutations of lovers.

Prodcos: ColumbiaPictures, Inside Track
US dist:
Int'ldist:Columbi TriStar FDI
MikeNichols, John Calley, Cary Brokaw
Exec prods:
Scott Rudin, Celia Costas, Robert Fox
PatrickMarber, based on his own play
Prod des:
Tim Hatley
JohnBloom, Antonia Van Drimmelen
Costume des:
Ann Roth
Main cast:
Julia Roberts, Jude Law, Natalie Portman, Clive Owen