Dir: Patrice Leconte. 2000. 112 mins.

Prod cos: Ephithete Films, Cinemaginaire. Co-prods: Denise Robert, Daniel Louis. Domestic dist: Pathe. Int'l Sales: Flach Pyramide International. Exec prods: Gilles Legrand, Frederic Brillion. Scr: Claude Faraldo. DoP: Eduardo Serra. Prod des: Ivan Maussion. Ed: Joelle Hache. Music: Pascal Esteve. Main cast: Juliette Binoche, Daniel Auteil, Emir Kusturica, Philippe Magnan, Michel Duchaussoy.

The latest film from the productive Leconte is a haunting melodrama in an unusual setting. The curious nature of the tale it tells and the presence of Binoche and Auteuil (teamed in a film for the first time) should ensure lively arthouse and small screen interest, though an emotional chilliness at its core may prevent it from soaring.

Embellished from a real-life incident, it is set in 1850 on the remote island of Saint Pierre, off the Eastern coast of Canada, where a military Captain (Auteuil) and his wife (Binoche) enjoy a sexually intense and devoted, though childless marriage. He is a loner posted, perhaps, to this backwater for a previous indiscretion; she, known simply as Madame La, is strong-minded and outspoken. When a visiting sailor (Yugoslav director Kusturica in his acting debut) drunkenly commits a murder, Madame La, convinced there is good in the man, takes him under her wing.

In a French colony, the death penalty must be enforced by guillotine (the "widow" of the title), even if none is to hand; it will take months for the implement to arrive. Meanwhile, the prisoner roves freely, gradually proving himself a useful and popular member of the community until no-one, except for a handful of functionaries, supports his execution.

Spanning several seasons, the film vividly captures the arduousness of life, especially in the long, hard winters, on the lonely island, and touches lightly on the fairness of the death penalty and the clash between French and colonial law. But key elements remain fuzzy. The murder is presented in a rushed manner; the nature of Madame La's feelings for the condemned man is vague (though it's clear that they are not having an affair); and, despite strong performances from the two leads, so much of the grand passion between the Captain and his wife remains unspoken that it never quite swims into focus.