Movie review: 'Candy'

2½ stars (out of four)

It's the same as listening to Penelope Cruz let loose in Spanish in the new Almodovar film "Volver." Hearing Heath Ledger speak his native tongue--in this case, Australian English--in the addled drug addiction drama "Candy" makes an enormous difference in the performer's expressive range. How could it not? Every actor under the sun is most effective speaking his first language.

Ledger's turning out to be a chameleon-like ace in a variety of dialects, as "Brokeback Mountain" proved so well. The formidable achievement of Ledger's Ennis Del Mar--and it really was a great performance--had to do with a shrewd young actor finding his way inside a foreign, forlorn voice, a cowboy drawl so tight-lipped (literally) you wondered if a ranch hand could exist on that little oxygen. Yet the performance never seemed like a stunt.

In "Candy," based on the Luke Davies novel, Ledger plays a more expansively flashy outsider role, that of Dan, a struggling Aussie poet. He's in love with Candy, a would-be artist played by Abbie Cornish. Geoffrey Rush portrays Casper, the couple's surrogate father figure, a professor of organic chemistry who lives for young men and for heroin. He's a little bit devil, a little bit angel, proferring free drugs while hypocritically clucking about overuse.

In between dreamy sexual encounters, Dan and Candy careen from one smacked-out high to another. Money is a constant problem, and while Candy comes from a comfortable middle-class existence, the combination of poetry, art and heroin does not pay in any respect. Candy sells herself on the street to make ends meet.

This is an addiction story interested in getting its hands only so dirty. The way director and co-adapter Armfield shoots it, the film's awfully pretty in its grimness, in the way "Leaving Las Vegas" managed to make train-wreck alcoholism more fake-lyrical than grungy.

Ledger, however, is alive and awake and interesting every minute of "Candy." His performance betrays not a speck of vanity or evident calculation; it's all nerve endings and momentary thrills and emotional need. The rest of the film isn't up to his level. But the actor's richly diverse career is developing in all the right directions.

mjphillips@tribune.com

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'Candy'

Directed by Neil Armfield; screenplay by Luke Davies and Armfield, based on Davies' novel; cinematography by Garry Phillips; edited by Dany Cooper; production design by Robert Cousins; music by Paul Charlier; produced by Margaret Fink and Emile Sherman. A ThinkFilm release; opens Friday at Loews Pipers Alley 4, 1608 N. Wells St.; 312-642-7500. Running time: 1:48. MPAA rating: R (for pervasive depiction of drug addiction, disturbing images, language, sexual content and nudity).

Dan - Heath Ledger

Candy - Abbie Cornish

Casper - Geoffrey Rush

Mr. Wyatt - Tony Martin

Mrs. Wyatt - Noni Hazlehurst

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