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Redirection muddies the waters of 'Jindabyne'

Laura Linney and Gabriel Byrne star in Raymond Carver's story, which has been moved to the Australian outback. (Matt Nettheim/Sony Pictures Classics)

Watching Laura Linney and Gabriel Byrne play a married couple in "Jindabyne " is like being asked to drink a good white wine with a prime cut of steak. You can do it, and it won't taste bad, but you never lose the jarring sense of things that don't belong together.

That may actually be why director Ray Lawrence -- he made the brooding 2001 mystery-drama "Lantana " -- cast the two actors, since the marriage of Claire (Linney) and Stewart (Byrne) is in trouble. The two no longer speak the same language. The question is if they ever did.

But "Jindabyne" is stitched from different materials on a number of levels. It's a feature-length film based on a Raymond Carver short story ("So Much Water So Close to Home ," first published in 1977 and previously put on screen as part of Robert Altman's 1993 "Short Cuts. " In that film, the two characters were played by Anne Archer and Fred Ward : crème de menthe and hamburger ).

An American tale on the page, it has been relocated to the mountains of Lawrence's native Australia. The biggest change is that a spare, haunting story about the gulf between men and women has become a parable of white Australia's mistreatment of the aborigines. This weakens "Jindabyne" rather than strengthening it; Carver's prose has an implacable momentum that slows when you load too much on top.

Still: Linney and Byrne, two actors who are never not interesting, and a central event that nags like an aching tooth. Stewart, a garage owner in the New South Wales tourist town of Jindabyne, goes fishing in the backcountry once a year with a trio of friends; this year, before they even set up camp, they discover the body of a dead girl floating in the river.

They could hike back out and notify the authorities. Instead, the buddies tether the corpse to the bank with fishing line and spend their allotted three days communing with nature and whiskey. Only when driving back to town do they phone the body in.

"Jindabyne" isn't a murder mystery. We've known who killed the girl from the opening scene, and the movie has no interest in pursuing him. It does matter, though, that the victim was an aborigine and the men who let her float for three days were white.

For Claire, this matters a lot. Already fragile after a sketchily described breakdown following the birth of her son, Tom (Sean Rees-Wemyss ), she sees the incident as final proof of the malevolence of the universe and of men and (she can barely bring herself to admit it) of Stewart. The two are already outsiders in Jindabyne -- Claire vaguely American, Stewart from Ireland -- and her efforts to unite the white and native townspeople in mourning is taken as misguided at best, dangerous at worst.

Lawrence and screenwriter Beatrix Christian let the story unfold realistically, as if keeping to Carver's rough-hewn sentences. We're invited to make up our own minds about Claire and her possibly unstable righteousness, about the men who've been blindsided by the media uproar. A sense of doom builds like slow thunder, and the heroine's friends and neighbors are so brutish that some kind of apocalypse seems nigh. The resolution "Jindabyne" eventually offers, though, feels small and safe. The movie goes out with a whimper.

Where it works best is in the domestic dance of death between a husband and a wife. Linney flutters with increasingly panicky intelligence throughout the film, while Byrne sinks further into his own bulk. Stewart knows what he has done wrong, but he won't admit it and he'll never regret it. That's his crime, in Claire's eyes. By betraying another woman, he has betrayed his wife.



Directed by: Ray Lawrence

Written by: Beatrix Christian , based on a short story by Raymond Carver

Starring: Laura Linney , Gabriel Byrne

At: Kendall Square, West Newton

Running time: 123 minutes

Rated: R (disturbing images, language, some nudity)