Directed by Mehdi Norowzian, starring Joseph Fiennes, Elisabeth Shue, Sam Shepard, Dennis Hopper, Mary Stuart Masterson, Deborah Kara Unger, Davis Sweat and Justin Chambers.

'Leo' tries so hard to be unnerving and shady in its bleak portrayal of a cheated life that it becomes awkwardly unsettling.

It tells the story of a very messed-up little boy, and of how a life can be strangled before it even begins. Leopold Bloom (Sweat) was born at the wrong time and never given a chance to experience the life and love of a real family. His mother Mary Bloom (Shue) goes into a state of shock and turmoil after the domestic safety that she knows is ripped apart.

Emotionally distraught, she disowns her boy, whom she names 'Leopold' in memory of happier times while she was studying Joyce's 'Ulysses' at college. But Leo himself is not a memory of anything happy. A constant reminder of her own mistakes, Mary cannot even look her own son in the eye. Spiralling into a deep depression of drinking binges, blackouts and ferocious arguments with her lover, her life disintegrates as Leo's begins.

Shunned and cheated of any real quality of life, Leo fast becomes a loner. He is wise beyond his years, yet remarkably withdrawn. As he drifts through a life destined for tragedy and nothingness, there is something a little too inevitable about his fate.

In a parallel story, intermittently cut through that of the boy, we meet Stephen (Fiennes), finishing up his jail term for murder and re-emerging into the world. Taking a job in a grotty diner run by the kind-hearted Vic (Shepard), Stephen clashes with the ensemble of brutal characters that frequent the diner, particularly the convincingly nasty Horace (Hopper). And while Fiennes exceptionally portrays the oddities and disturbances of the sullen Stephen, the film becomes tedious all too quickly.

Leopold Bloom evolves on screen into a very loathsome character. You want to have sympathy for him, trapped in a life that 'unfortunate' would not even begin to describe. But there is something so hidden and calculated in his eyes that he becomes virtually despicable. At the finish you end up caring little about what becomes of him. 

The manner of the depiction of Leo's life in semi-flashback sequence mostly serves to hinder the viewer's enjoyment of this film. Too much effort is spent distancing the severed storylines, with little impact when the connection eventually becomes obvious.

Mehdi Norowzian's feature length debut does have a few mildly redeeming features, but not enough to carry 'Leo' as a successfully hard-hitting film. While it is framed cleverly and shot to maximum impact, the flaws of this film are more memorable than any attributes that you would have to dig for.

The potential for a powerful and emotionally challenging film was lost somewhere along the way. It's a pity because 'Leo' could have been worth a lot more.

Linda McGee