Finely lensed but dramatically holed beneath the waterline, "The Lost Son" loses its way pretty quickly and only occasionally manages to hit the mark. As a London-based French PI who takes a personal interest in solving a nasty pedophilia case, Daniel Auteuil makes for an uninvolving lead in his first English-lingo role.

Finely lensed but dramatically holed beneath the waterline, “The Lost Son” loses its way pretty quickly and only occasionally manages to hit the mark. As a London-based French PI who takes a personal interest in solving a nasty pedophilia case, Daniel Auteuil makes for an uninvolving lead in his first English-lingo role, and the script, whose imperfections seem to have escaped the gaze of a bevy of producers, largely squanders the talents of the cast. Only mild business at best looks likely for British d.p. Chris Menges’ fourth helming chore, which had the potential to be his least low-key work to date. Pic opened April 21 in France, with U.K. release set for June.

Following his debut a decade ago with the problematical “A World Apart,” Menges subsequently chose smaller canvases on which to paint his emotional dramas (“CrissCross,” “Second Best”). “The Lost Son,” set in London and Mexico, and adopting a modern noirish tone, has all the makings of a powerful thriller. But the drama never really clicks into gear, and the thrills are fleeting.

Xavier (Auteuil) is a former Paris narcotics cop who, for some unexplained reason, has exiled himself to London, where he lives alone and makes a solid but unspectacular living as a shamus. A former colleague, Carlos (Ciaran Hinds), asks him to take on a case as a personal favor, and Xavier agrees.

Carlos has married Deborah (Nastassja Kinski), daughter of the wealthy Spitzes (Cyril Shaps, Billie Whitelaw, with Euro accents), whose son, Leon, a photographer and heroin addict, is missing. Deborah insists the disappearance is nothing out of the ordinary, but Mom and Dad are insistent their boy must be found — and, more important to Xavier, are prepared to pay serious money for his time.

A professional to his fingertips, Xavier traces Leon to an address on the Suffolk coast. Leon is long gone, but a girlfriend, Emily (Katrin Cartlidge, weak), is looking after a 10-year-old boy (Hemal Pandya) and a video Leon left behind. After a quick look at the tape — on the surface, a copy of Lotte Reiniger’s 1922 silhouette cartoon “Sleeping Beauty” — Xavier realizes Leon was somehow involved in a pedophile ring but took a powder after rescuing one of the kids.

With the help of hooker friend Nathalie (Marianne Denicourt) from his Paris days, Xavier penetrates the London ring, posing as a client, and doggedly follows a trail that leads to the supposed big boss, Friedman (Bruce Greenwood), in Mexico, and a final revelation back in London.

Auteuil, whose English is not always the clearest, is fine at portraying a cool, lonely pro but is hardly the most ideal actor for a role that demands audience involvement from an early stage. Aside from trying to shoehorn some romance into the story — in the over-beauteous form of Denicourt as a call girl who’s always loved him — script is full of inconsistencies that become increasingly distracting when one should be wrapped up in the story. Why did Carlos hire Xavier in the first place? Why does the tough Xavier, who’s shown at the start calmly blackmailing one of his clients, suddenly turn all morally righteous over pedophilia? And what is the terrible truth that made him relocate to London in the first place?

The last question is finally explained (though too little, too late), but it’s symptomatic of the general disarray of the script, which is littered with unbackgrounded characters (Carlos, Deborah, Nathalie) whose behavior seems weird at best. Final “revelation” is visible at about four reels’ distance.

On a technical level, pic is a delight, beautifully shot in strong, clean colors by ace d.p. Barry Ackroyd, and portraying London as a living, breathing city; neither it nor rural Mexico (doubled by Arizona) is over-prettified. Performances are adequate within the bounds of the script, which doesn’t stray far from stereotypes (Auteuil, for a start, is rarely shown without a Gitane between his lips), and the violence is brief and effective. But there’s really not much going on here, and very little sense of a man being drawn into a pit of depravity to exorcise some vague past demons.

The Lost Son

British-French

Production

A Bac Films (in France)/UIP-The Film Consortium (in U.K.) release of a Film Consortium/Le Studio Canal Plus/Scala/Ima Films presentation, in association with the Arts Council of England, Film Four, France 2 Cinema, France 3 Cinema and Canal Plus, of a Scala (U.K.)/Ima Films (France) production. Produced by Finola Dwyer. Executive producers, Nik Powell, Stephen Woolley, Georges Benayoun, Sarah Radclyffe. Co-producer, Marina Gefter. Directed by Chris Menges. Screenplay, Eric and Margaret Leclere, Mark Mills, based on an original story by the Lecleres.

Crew

Camera (color), Barry Ackroyd; editors, Pamela Power, Luc Barnier; music, Goran Bregovic; production designer, John Beard; supervising art director, Ricky Eyres; art director, Ray Chan; costume designer, Rosie Hackett; sound (Dolby Digital), Martin Trevis; stunt coordinator, Tom Delmar; line producer, Paul Cowan; associate producer, Judy Menges; assistant director, Stuart Renfrew; casting, Vanessa Pereira, Simone Ireland. Reviewed at UIP screening room, London, Apr. 21, 1999. Running time: 102 MIN.

With

Xavier Lombard - Daniel Auteuil Deborah Spitz - Nastassja Kinski Emily - Katrin Cartlidge Carlos - Ciaran Hinds Nathalie - Marianne Denicourt Friedman - Bruce Greenwood Mrs. Spitz - Billie Whitelaw Mr. Spitz - Cyril Shaps Hopper - Jamie Harris Shiva - Hemal Pandya Boy #6 - Billy Smyth Peter - Cal MacAninch Martin - Mark Benton (English and French dialogue)

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