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Hard Time

Despite some fine acting, “I've Loved You So Long” teaches us the tedium of imprisonment.

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Kristin Scott Thomas has been widely applauded for her performance in “I've Loved You So Long,” and with good reason. It's just too bad that reason takes so long to arrive on screen and after so much awkward buildup in this pat drama.

French novelist Philippe Claudel directs his own material for the first time in this story about Juliette (Thomas), a flinty, distrustful woman with a dark past and darker circles around her eyes who moves in with her sister, Lea (Elsa Zylberstein), after 15 years in prison, a fact revealed late in the film and not explained until even later.

At first intriguing, Juliette's mysterious past begins to wear while the viewer bears witness instead to all the slings and arrows the quiet heroine must endure after life behind bars, including enduring the distrust of others, long talks with her parole officer and tender moments with Lea's adopted children. “I've Loved You” only picks up, however, whenever Juliette is in the company of a budding love interest (Laurent GrAcvill), another veteran of the prison system and the character who feels the most real and well-rounded — likely because his experiences were based in part on Claudel's.

The first-time director was lucky to have Thomas at his disposal, but the ticking bomb he creates in her somehow fails to build more suspense than boredom. Thomas is one of those rare contemporary film actors you could imagine in Hollywood's golden age. You want to see her made up, given flattering lighting and put in a big picture like Anthony Minghella's “The English Patient,” but in yet another comparatively plain French drama (after last year's “Tell No One”) one begins to wish some David Lean type would sweep into France and carry her off.

“I've Loved You So Long” relies on the mystery of Juliette and the tension about her past, but with characters this closed off you may not want to wait around to find out what the big fuss is about. Until then we mostly see Juliette sulk and stew, waiting interminably to find out why. And that might be the biggest insight we get about what her life was like for those 15 long years. (PG-13) 117 min. HHIIIS

Yet another update: The opening for "I've Loved You So Long" has been pushed back to Feb. 13.

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