Dir: Samantha Lang. Australia. 2000. 91 mins.

Prod co: Arena Film. International sales: Studio Canal (33-1) 4443 9800. Prods: Robert Connolly, John Maynard. Scr: Anne Kennedy, based on the verse novel by Dorothy Porter. DoP: Garry Philips. Prod des: Michael Philips. Ed: Dany Cooper. Mus: Andrew Kotatko. Main cast: Susie Porter, Kelly McGillis, Marton Csokas, Deoborah Mailman, Abbie Cornish.

A smart and stylish genre-bender - part lesbian love story, part film noir - The Monkey's Mask features a protagonist unlike any in recent memory.

Jill (Porter) was a Sydney cop until she was outed and driven off the force. Now, working as a private investigator, she's been hired to search for a missing girl only to fall for the girl's university tutor, Diana (McGillis).

It's hard to see the film doing anything beyond marginal business but it further enhances the prowess of Porter (star of Australian hit Two Hands). It's an extraordinary role for an actress - complex, aggressive, confused - Jill swerves between her passion for Diana and her resentment of the high-brow academic society Diana moves in.

Unfortunately, her urges don't include the mystery, a failing in film noir. The dialogue unconsciously implies this when Diana says to Jill, "You're a great fuck but a very ordinary detective." Lines like these could attract an audience beyond the obvious same-sex crowd and several sexy love scenes between the rough-at-the-edges Jill and the more mature and refined Diana will do no harm. But ultimately the film lacks gravity and excitement - it never builds on the initial tension and the sleuthing angle is in fact several notches below ordinary - likeable and watchable as Porter is, the film falters whenever she returns to the trail.

Lush cinematography by Garry Philips suggests a Chandleresque torpor but the narrative never clicks in. Director Lang (whose previous outing, The Well, was a critical darling) and screenwriter Anne Kennedy accentuate the romance at the expense of storytelling and then are forced to overcompensate at the climax to wrap up the loose ends.