- The Washington Times - Friday, October 25, 2002

The romantic mystery thriller "The Truth About Charlie," opening today, reunites director Jonathan Demme with actress Thandie Newton. They were associated four years ago on a prestige project that fell somewhat short of popular and critical triumph, the movie version of Toni Morrison's novel "Beloved."

In the interim, Miss Newton, who turns 30 in days, has been in several features, including one of the big hits of 2000, "Mission: Impossible 2." Mr. Demme, 57, hasn't slipped another feature or two into the same time frame, but he sustains parallel careers making documentaries and music videos, so there is rarely an inactive stretch in his schedule. During a national promotional tour for the new film, director and actress met the Washington press in a suite at the St. Regis hotel.

A remake, "The Truth About Charlie" tries to ingratiate itself while trifling with one of the most durably appealing entertainments of the early 1960s, Stanley Donen's "Charade," in which Audrey Hepburn played a charming young widow menaced by the sinister confederates of her late husband, a man of mystery named Charles.

Cary Grant co-starred as another man of mystery, a potential Galahad who went by several names and acted suspicious enough to cast recurrent shadows of doubt on his heroic and protective attributes. Walter Matthau had a clever and amusing role as a government bureaucrat who takes a keen interest in the case.

The comparable roles in the new film are entrusted to Miss Newton, Mark Wahlberg (no kidding) and Tim Robbins. The setting once again is Paris, but a Paris with somewhat different scenic aspects almost 40 years later.

Mr. Demme acknowledges his desire to showcase a Paris full of ethnic byways that weren't crucial to "Charade." He explains, "I thought we could capitalize on the traditional Paris, the super-romantic, picture-postcard 'City of Lights' on one hand while also realizing a lot of new dimensions. Going into quarters that reflect newer waves of immigration, with clubs and markets that have a multicultural flavor. You can find something like the Casbah in Paris itself now. It's not a faraway thing, off in Algiers or some other city of North Africa. It was really fun in that regard. It was a cake-and-eat-it-too kind of project."

• • •

An exquisite interracial mix, Miss Newton is the daughter of an English engineer and a Zimbabwean nurse. She was born in Zambia and lived there until the age of 3. The family, which also included a son, moved to Penzance, the father's hometown, to escape increasing political tension in Zambia in the middle 1970s.

An aspiring dancer in her youth, Miss Newton was educated at Cambridge University, where she earned an undergraduate degree in anthropology. She made her feature debut while still a teenager in an Australian film, John Duigan's "Flirting," also an early showcase for Nicole Kidman. During a promotional trip to Washington in 1995 for "The Journey of August King," also directed by Mr. Duigan, Miss Newton still wasn't sure if the acting profession would suit her.

"I still didn't know whether I had chosen acting or it had chosen me," she recalls. "Now I know for certain. It's been the right decision. I don't know what I'll do over the next five years, but I am more inclined to prefer modern-day, current themes."

Miss Newton's next project is certain: "Click," the first feature by her husband, an aspiring writer-director named Oliver Parker. They plan to shoot it in London early next year.

"It's a great script," Mr. Demme says. "Thandie's husband and I have become great friends. During 'Beloved,' my kids made friends with Thandie before I had a chance to."

Born in New Jersey and raised for the most part in Florida, Mr. Demme graduated from the University of Florida and spent some time reviewing movies for the college newspaper. This was after "Charade" was released, he recalls. "I did see it when it came out," he says, "and I did love it. It made me feel very sophisticated. Maybe it was the most sophisticated American movie I had seen up to that time. I also liked its active dark-humor dimension."

• • •

The idea of a remake never lingered in the back of his mind. "No, no, no, no, no," Mr. Demme says. "The main motivation was to team up with Thandie again, but in a modern, contemporary idiom, one that would allow people to hear what her voice really sounds like and see her display her myriad gifts and charms, as the contemporary person she is."

Having acquired a substantial reputation for humorous originality with "Citizens Band," "Melvin and Howard," "Swing Shift" and "Something Wild," Mr. Demme finally hit it big in 1991 with the movie version of "The Silence of the Lambs," which won Academy Awards for best picture, direction, actress (Jodie Foster), actor (Anthony Hopkins) and screenplay (Ted Tally).

The Demme-Newton visit to Washington coincided with the opening of "Red Dragon," a remake of the first Thomas Harris novel, which introduced the character of Hannibal Lecter, indelibly identified with Mr. Hopkins as soon as "Lambs" appeared.

Was it safe to assume that Mr. Demme had first refusal on directing both "Hannibal" and "Red Dragon"?

It was. "I wish I did have a stake in the new movie," Mr. Demme says. "All of us involved in 'Silence of the Lambs' had assumed that when Thomas Harris finished his sequel, we'd be on board, if indeed it dealt with the same characters.

"He sent me the manuscript of 'Hannibal.' I read it with a sinking feeling. Clarice Starling's fate just kind of broke my heart and sapped my enthusiasm. I felt I couldn't handle being a part of telling that story. In my little formulaic corner of the world, I expected and wanted to see Clarice and Lecter square off against each other, with each being as formidable as when last seen. I wanted that sort of confrontation.

"To see Clarice's spirit broken, to see how she winds up in the pages of 'Hannibal' was just very, very sad to me. I didn't want to go there."

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