PROMISES: BACK TO AGE OF ACTOR

If you take encouragement from small signs--and if you are occupied with watching an inordinate amount of motion pictures, almost willy-nilly, you take as much encouragement as you can get--we are in the opening months of what seems to be a promising film year.

(You almost hate to put that down in words for fear the Movie Gods will adjust the grind of their mill just slightly and we’ll really be in for it.)

Just consider the caliber of movies we have to choose from just now: “Lucas,” “Turtle Diary,” “Trouble in Mind,” “My Beautiful Laundrette,” “A Room With a View” and, if somehow you still haven’t seen it, “Hannah and Her Sisters.” It’s nothing if not a varied lot, but they all share a common quality: exceptional performances. After far too long among hardware films, priapic teen-agers and the muscle-bound right wing, we may have re-entered the age of the actor.

And the ensemble. These films have been written and directed with a breadth and generosity that lets us understand a whole group of characters, not merely two or three central ones. (Interestingly enough, half of these, David Seltzer’s “Lucas,” Alan Rudolph’s “Trouble in Mind” and Woody Allen’s “Hannah and Her Sisters,” are the work of writers/directors, which may be another reason for their rich ensemble feeling. And with “A Room With a View,” the Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala collaboration has been ongoing for 23 years, so there may be some excuse for thinking of them as one mind, not three.)

However, ensemble or not, a few performances leap out of these very special films--and one more, Sean Penn’s in “At Close Range,” which single-handedly makes a pretty overwrought film something to see.

Young British actor Daniel Day Lewis is probably the biggest noise right now, based on a pair of extraordinarily opposite roles. In “A Room With a View,” he plays Lucy Honeychurch’s curdled aristocratic fiance, Cecil Vyse, an eminently dislikable young prig. “Some chaps are good for nothing but books. I plead guilty to being such a chap,” he says, but the tone is pride, not apology. We so desperately want Lucy to wake up to her own smoldering instincts and connect with Julian Sand’s George Emerson, so physical, so breathtakingly good-looking and so splendidly right for her, that we are inclined to write Cecil off. Yet on the evening when Cecil receives a romantic body blow, he sits down utterly stunned, removing his pince-nez and untying his high-buttoned shoes. Suddenly we see real pain in this seemingly diffident, insufferable young man. It’s the sort of insight that leaves a residue of humanity in its wake--it makes us consider the whole person, not just his surface mannerisms or behavior.

Lewis’ second role bends us around in surprise again. From Cecil Vyse’s four-inch collar, so starched it’s almost lethal, his center part and his small mustache (which make the actor look eerily like Richard Haydn’s Prof. Carp), we leap to Johnny in “My Beautiful Laundrette,” a working-class gang leader in South London, whose hair is a half-black, half-blond brush cut and whose dress is fatigues. What Lewis captures is decency struggling to the surface against pretty stiff odds.

Johnny has marched in those neo-Nazi National Front demonstrations against any and all non-white English immigrants. What he becomes during the course of this multilayered and audacious story is the employee and the lover of young Omar (Gordon Warnecke), a British-born Pakistani who had been his schoolmate as the two grew up together.

It’s the nonchalance and matter-of-factness that distinguishes this gay relationship, the “no big deal” tone that director Stephen Frears and writer Hanif Kureishi have taken, that challenges us to do the same. And stylized and languid as Lewis’ performance is as Cecil Vyse in the period film, he’s direct, humorously mocking and all energy in “Laundrette.”

Behind these two performances, each of which, of course, profit by the existence of the other as a demonstration of Lewis’ range, is solid British theater training at the Bristol Old Vic, touring experience with the Royal Shakespeare Company and work at the BBC. And possibly something in the genes: He is the son of British Poet Laureate Cecil Day Lewis and the grandson of Sir Michael Balcon, whose Ealing Studios gave us the high-water mark comedies of the ‘40s and ‘50s, “Kind Hearts and Coronets” and “The Lavender Hill Mob.” One suspects he stands poised to surprise us each time out and for a very, very long time.

Dianne Wiest has been an open secret to Broadway theatergoers for some time now, and for the few who saw Robert Mandel’s first film, “Independence Day.” Her performance as an abused wife was so complex and so haunting that she was clearly an actress to watch for. However, it has taken Woody Allen (who, with Alan Rudolph, would seem to be the director on whose mercy to throw oneself if you are an actress today) to unveil the bewitching Wiest for the rest of the world.

In “Hannah,” she plays, of course, a quintessential New Yorker, a schizy dabbler with perhaps too many half-talents: cooking, acting, writing and that very feminine and personal form of self-expression, dressing. Wiest’s talents lies in making us want this nervy, trendy, cokehead to sort herself out--to see herself as perhaps only Woody Allen can see her in the beginning of the film, as the possessor of a singular gift, not simply a bit of flotsam on the crest of the newest wave.

Together they accomplish that--with no offense to “sisters” Mia Farrow or Barbara Hershey, each of whom plays a different facet of womanhood (maternal and sensual, respectively)--and make Wiest the Annie Hall of the ‘80s, a triumphant stylist of her own devising.

Finally, there is the reappearance of Sean Penn as the rudderless son of a high-living country hood in “At Close Range.” Penn’s ability to inhabit his characters gets another workout here. Like De Niro, he goes in for full-scale physical transformation, and here he’s put 30 pounds of muscle on that slight frame so that he could easily pass for a Pennsylvania farm country kid, but the performance is far beyond surface. There’s something terrifying and touching in Brad Jr., brought up by a mother and grandmother and introduced to his dangerous father (Christopher Walken) only in late adolescence.

The techniques that director James Foley choose to tell his story overwhelm it; there’s no need for all this moist exhibition of “style” when dry narration of this true story would be enough to chill anyone. But the core of Penn’s performances, a real life-and-death definition of right and wrong, makes it a movie to seek out.

These are only the lightning rod actors of their particular movies. See any one of these films and you’ll stumble into a treasure trove of exceptional performances.