Dir: Penny Woolcock. UK. 2003. 105mins.

A dark moral tale with a steely eye for life's nastier side, The Principles Of Lust is a compelling and discomforting narrative with intellectual ambitions only too rare in UK cinema. Its visual rawness, distinctly European feel and provocative subject matter will no doubt make it more a talking point than a box-office draw at home. However, Penny Woolcock's drama, set in the northern English city of Sheffield, should have a strong festival presence, and is likely to get a warmer commercial reception in Europe and on the US art-house circuit than in the UK. Woolcock's readiness to dirty her hands both narratively and visually make it a bracing anomaly among current British output, edging at times into the challenging territory of French directors such as Catherine Breillat.

Hero Paul (Newman) is a youngish would-be writer who feels life's drabness closing in, and is desperate for experiences to fuel his sense of literary purpose. Things look promising when he meets Juliette (Guillory) at an art show and embarks on a passionate romance with her. Then he literally collides with photographer Billy (Warren), a self-styled plumber of the human soul, who offers to introduce Paul to the wild side of life.

First stop is a pub where Billy's girlfriend Hole (Clifton) performs a jovially raunchy strip act; before long, Billy initiates Paul into the underworld of bare-knuckle fighting, where 11-year-old boys inflict horrific damage on each other. Meanwhile, Paul increasingly struggles to shoulder his responsibilities as Juliette's live-in lover and father figure to her five-year-old son Harry (the engagingly solemn Popplewell).

Writer-director Woolcock, whose adaptation of the opera The Death Of Klinghoffer screened at Sundance, uses largely hand-held photography and encourages the actors to improvise around her script. This lends the film a rough, nervy feel that offsets the somewhat schematic feel of the narrative. Paul is clearly a soul up for grabs, with Juliette and Paul representing his respective angel and devil figures.

There is a slight sense of anachronism - the would-be dole-queue bohemian feels very much like an 1980s image (although the point is that state benefits are no longer a reliable resource for arty types) - and aspects of the male psychological powerplay echo Martis Amis novels of the period. A more contemporary parallel might be with Fight Club, not so much because of the fight scenes as for the Billy/Paul relationship echoing the alter ego characters in David Fincher's feature.

The film convinces less as a realistic picture of the British cultural landscape than as an enquiry into male libido, with the domineering Billy contrasted not only with indecisive Paul but with Juliette's sympathetic social-worker colleague Philip (Barratt). If The Principles Of Lust does not operate in the recognisable world, a hard edge of realism is still palpable, both in the blood-soaked fight sequences and in the culminating orgy, shot by Woolcock with extras from a real-life swingers' club (some of the action is apparently for real).

The cast is exceptional, too, with Newman fecklessly engaging, and Guillory starting out as the simmering embodiment of Paul's bohemian dreams before adjusting convincingly to a role more grounded in everyday pragmatism. The film is inevitably dominated by Warren's larger-than-life bad boy, whose demented menace makes for much of the film's genuine sense of unease; even so, it is left to the audience to decide whether Billy really is a satanic debauchee, or a self-aggrandising jerk.

Prod co: Blast! Films, Film Four, YMPA/Studio Of The North
UK dist:
Int'l sales:
Pathe International (UK)
Exec prods:
Robin Gutch, Colin Pons, Paul Webster
Madonna Baptiste
Woolcock, from the novel by Tim Cooke
Graham Smith
Brand Thumim
Prod des:
Jo Baker
Andy Cowton
Main cast:
Alec Newman, Marc Warren, Sienna Guillory, Lara Clifton, Alexander Popplewell, Julian Barratt