At two hours and 16 minutes, a director is testing the patience and will of his audience. He is also testing his own abilities. And it is a testament to director Todd Field that he manages to draw the audience into a story that could, in lesser hands, have been tedious and torturous.

The great success of 'Little Children' is that it feels nowhere near as long as two hours and 16 minutes. The characters, the pacing, the setting and Fields' storytelling all combine to make a film that is as engaging as you'll see all year.

For the record, the story is simply this; adults get things wrong too, and no less so than in relationships. Sarah Pierce (Winslet) is stuck with a husband whose tastes run to the depraved, while Brad Adamson (Wilson) feels less a man because his wife earns the money and runs the household. Brad and Sarah are increasingly drawn to each other and, in the tradition of so many love stories, are left to decide whether they should abandon their lives for love, or stay loyal to their families and, crucially, their children.

Developed from Tom Perotta's novel of the same name, the length of the film was a risk and, though it worked in the end, it still ranges over too wide a territory.

'Little Children' is not without flaws. The most obvious is the third person narration, which is far too clunky and all too often seems like an intrusive reading from the novel, rather than an integral part of the movie's scenery.

An even greater flaw is also directly attributable to its literary origins. Fields and Tom Perotta have distilled the novel for its transition to the screen and a number of characters have rightly been reduced from fully-fledged characters in the novel to stock figures propping up the film's narrative; Richard Pierce (Edelman) for example, is boiled down to a comic foil for his wife. The audience needs to see no more of him than that to deduce that Sarah is unhappy and unfulfilled on many levels.

With the character of sex offender Ronnie McGorvey (Haley), Fields and Perotta could have similarly demoted him and created a much shorter, though no less effective, film. However, they preserve him in his grotesqueness - indeed perhaps for his grotesqueness - even though he adds nothing to the narrative. Even so, it is to Fields' credit that the lengthy sections involving McGorvey never draw the audience's attention away from the story.

If the audience weighs this film fairly, it will find that Fields has failed to rein in the script, but that he has created a film that absorbs the audience nonetheless.

Barry J Whyte