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‘Candy’ has strong acting but little insight

Heath Ledger proves he’s the real deal in this tale of heroin addiction. By Christy Lemire
/ Source: The Associated Press

If there was any lingering doubt about Heath Ledger’s versatility following “Brokeback Mountain,” it should be dispelled here.

“Candy” allows him to get dark and dirty, and speak in his native Australian accent for a change, in an intensely believable tale of love and drug addiction.

Ledger and Abbie Cornish (the pretty blonde from “A Good Year”) play Dan and Candy, a young married couple who do whatever they must to feed their heroin habit: beg, borrow, steal, even sell their bodies. The first time she turns a trick, of her own volition, he’s OK with it — no great debate, no moral searching. Australian stage director Neil Armfield takes that same unflinching, matter-of-fact approach the whole way; it’s “Requiem for a Dream,” stripped of all the audiovisual acrobatics.

Armfield, who co-wrote the script with Luke Davies based on Davies’ novel, labels the film’s three acts as “Heaven,” “Earth” and “Hell.” But since Dan and Candy are already junkies from the start, their fall doesn’t feel quite so precipitous. And while the film itself goes through all the highs and lows required of any decent drug movie, it has no insight and offers nothing new to say about the nature of addiction.

When we first meet them, Dan is a poet and Candy is a painter who revel in their own romanticized vie boheme. They also function under their own convoluted code: When she wants to shoot up for the first time, he tries to dissuade her, preferring that she continue snorting the drug instead. It’s a protective gesture, almost sweet.

It also doesn’t last long. Heroin, and the need to find more of it, quickly consume their time, talent, and whatever innate charm they might have possessed. At first it heightens their already passionate relationship; even the car wash is exciting when they’re high. But it doesn’t take long for heroin to become everything they do and are.

Geoffrey Rush, a longtime friend of the director’s, is a randy scene-stealer as the couple’s wealthy friend, Casper, a gay professor who also uses and concocts a powerful, liquid version of the drug he calls “yellow Jesus.” He readily enables them but he’s also been doing this long enough to recognize the destructive dynamic that’s unfolding in front of him.

“When you can stop, you don’t want to,” Casper warns them halfheartedly. “When you want to stop, you can’t.”

His words become prophetic during the obligatory withdrawal sequence — which only takes place once Candy finds out she’s pregnant. They squirm and sweat on a mattress on the floor, they try to distract themselves with bad television. We’ve seen it all before, many times.

Meanwhile, Candy’s squarely middle-class parents (Tony Martin and Noni Hazlehurst), who watched with disapproval as their little girl married this good-for-nothing, find themselves feeling increasingly clueless and helpless.

That’s believable, too — but because we never had a strong handle on who all these people were at the beginning, it’s difficult to care about whether they’re capable of redemption in the end.