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THE EYES HAVE IT

Director Michael Apted has range. He's made two dozen films for British television, the political documentary Incident at Oglala and five installments of his continuing 7 Up series, which has followed a group of disparate children, at seven-year intervals, to adulthood. Apted has also ventured into Hollywood features--notably the 1980 country-singer bio-pic Coal Miner's Daughter (for which Sissy Spacek won an Oscar) and Gorillas in the Mist. Regardless of material, this Cambridge history graduate has demonstrated skill, quirkiness and refreshing independence.

It comes as no surprise, then, that Blink, Apted's first romantic thriller, avoids the commonplaces and cliches of a genre that has lately been wallowing in cheap scare tactics and soft-core pornography. If you can distinguish among Basic Instinct, Body of Evidence and Guilty as Sin, you're doing better than most people. But Blink has an intelligence, a wit and, most definitely, a way of seeing all its own.

How's this for a collision of character and plot? A beautiful and feisty young musician, blinded by her own mother at age eight, receives corneal transplants twenty years later. One of the first things she sees, albeit in a blur, is the face of a serial killer who's just murdered her upstairs neighbor. And how about this twist? Because Emma Brody's freshly stimulated brain has trouble processing what her new eyes see, some images don't register at all for hours or days. So cynical Chicago detectives don't know whether she's a nutjob given to hallucinations or the most unusual "eyewitness" they've ever seen.

This is the fetching idea first-time screenwriter Dana Stevens, a UCLA acting grad and enthusiastic medical researcher, brought to Apted. The result is one of the most complex and entertaining thrillers of recent times, featuring a heroine-in-jeopardy who surpasses the dramatic potential of, say, Audrey Hepburn in Wait Until Dark or Mia Farrow in Blind Terror. Carefully tuned to the Nineties, she is not only victim but sleuth, just as aggressive in her pursuit of the killer (and more so, of romance) as the hard-shelled cop she's working with.

Apted's leads are Madeleine Stowe, the willowy beauty whom Ray Liotta tormented in Unlawful Entry, and Aidan Quinn, late of Avalon and Benny and Joon. As witness and cop they rankle, wrangle and fulfill each other, and their dramatic chemistry is just about perfect. Peter Friedman co-stars as Emma's vaguely creepy ocular surgeon, who wants to hit on her once he provides her new eyes, and James Remar works well as Quinn's skeptical partner down at the grimy station house.

The other standouts are not actors. Apted, cinematographer Dante Spinotti and a team of visual effects types have created a radical set of new lenses so we may see just what the heroine Emma sees as her eyesight slowly improves. No mere gimmicks are these devices, but characters in the tale. The dingier districts of Chicago are used to good effect, along with Michael Jordan's grace and Wrigley Field at night, and the unclassifiable music (Irish folk-jazz-rock?) of a real-life Chicago group called The Drovers (for whom Emma is the fictional violinist) provides the film with both a lilt and a haunting grace.

Stevens's wily screenplay is peppered with self-mocking jokes and original police jargon, as well as a useful psychological subplot about the consequences of seeing...and feeling. From play to players and tone to tension, Blink is a first-rate thriller for the thinking moviegoer, conceived and executed by an underrated director who, happily, follows no path save his own.

 
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