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MOVIE REVIEW

Three-panel experiment enhances 'AKA' director's singular vision

Duncan Roy's hugely ambitious "AKA" folds the screen into a triptych as it chronicles the Dickensian climb of a working-class London boy named Dean (Matthew Leitch) who shifts identities while moving among the glitterati in Europe.

Mike Figgis's "Time Code," from 2000, broke the screen into quarters. But "AKA" isn't the work of formal complacency that Figgis's was. The three-panel format gives the digitally shot picture enormous psycho-emotional layering.

The experiment never collapses. In fact, it leaves you with the sense that you've been in the hands of a director with a major gift -- someone who deepens the art form and questions sexual identity without fogging up the story with humdrum stereotypes and hand-me-down politics.

Set in 1978, the film watches as Dean forsakes his sexually abusive father (Geoff Bell) and his passive mother (Lindsay Coulson) by upgrading his ambitions from coach to first class. He has no ostensible skills, just a pretty face and a serpentine gift for shedding his upbringing. He lucks into a job with Lady Gryffoyn (Diana Quick), the tart London aristocrat and gallery owner about whom his mother has been going on and on.

Eventually, Dean becomes a bright fixture in the lady's life, like a new piece of jewelry. "Now, this is a mother," he seems to say. So much so that he pretends to be her son. Renamed Alexander, he appears at an art opening, where he meets an elegant fellow named David (George Aspery) as well as Ben (Peter Youngblood Hills), David's bratty, gold-digging Texan boyfriend whose life seems to echo Dean's, without any of the polish.

He's introduced to a conga line of obnoxious aristos, who take Dean at his word. Except for David, the rich are so vain, snotty, and coked-up here that they remain frozen in caricature. The only thing missing is narration by Robin Leach. Roy's screenplay enriches the class narrative with a sort of detective story, in which two lowly credit officers try to track down the boy.

Dean himself remains an amazing complexity. With his elaborate makeover comes a shift in sexuality that Leitch, in his intuitive performance, actually seems to be contemplating. Dean is never fully lost in his posing.

When, the movie asks, does a plain-old ruse give way to real self-deception? But its poignant revelation is that, unlike Patricia Highsmith's murderous chameleon Tom Ripley, Dean doesn't seem entirely self-deceived.

According to Roy, this story, in fact, is the one of his life. He claims his adolescence was kicked off with a nervous breakdown and with a stint in an adult mental hospital.

He was later locked up again after stealing the identity of his aristocrat boss's son. The movie reimagines this life as "The Talented Mister Ripley" biliously wedged into Martin Amis's novel "Success" or John Guare's play "Six Degrees of Separation."

The movie's split-screen format might seem hokey if it didn't speak to the very notion of reinvention itself. The same action is often repeated at the same time.

Occasionally, there's a shot in one panel and its reverse in another. And Dean is frequently photographed from more than one angle. The triptych is a device but never a gimmick: three windows into one fractured soul.

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com.

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