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Movies: Hereafter ***

In the early years of his directorial career, Clint Eastwood tended to stick to what he knew best: westerns and action thrillers. But of late he has branched out into boxing pictures, epic war sagas and even political dramas.

He's never been further from his comfort zone, however, than he is with Hereafter. Based on a script from Peter Morgan (Frost/Nixon, The Queen), the film is a sort of supernatural thriller that explores the possibility of an afterlife through the stories of three disparate characters.

Matt Damon, who formed an interesting creative alliance with Eastwood on the flawed Invictus, plays a reluctant San Francisco psychic called George Lonegan. After a near-death experience as a child, George discovered he had the ability to connect with the dead. When he touches the hands of someone recently bereaved he gets visions and messages from beyond the grave, but his gift has been more of a curse than a blessing.

At one point, spurred on by his rather insensitive businessman brother, George was a well-paid and highly sought-after professional psychic, but the constant strain of dealing with desperate people exhausted him, and his gift has sabotaged every attempt at a meaningful relationship. George has hidden out for several years working in a factory, but when he loses his job his brother begins to put pressure on him to go back to being a medium.

Elsewhere in the wide world, a French woman called Marie Lelay (Celine De France) is holidaying in Thailand with her boyfriend when the 2004 tsunami hits. In the film's most powerful scenes, the peace of a beach resort is shattered when a wall of brine crashes through the streets, upending cars and crushing everything in its wake. Marie is submerged and almost dies, and while she's being revived she sees images of a serene and peaceful place. And when she goes back to France to resume her busy media career, she becomes obsessed by the notion of an afterlife.

Meanwhile, in London, a pair of 12-year-old twins called Marcus and Jason are trying to cope in very difficult circumstances. Their mother is a hopeless heroin addict, and social services are about to take the boys away when Jason is hit and killed by a car. Marcus is devastated, and when he's removed from his mother and placed with very kindly foster parents, he cannot settle without the guidance of his brother. Then he chances on George Lonegan's old website, and becomes convinced he's the only man who'll be able to help him.

How these three stories come together I will leave to your imagination, but they certainly take their own sweet time in doing so. And, in fact, Hereafter is a curiously stop-start affair, a rather funereal drama that runs out of steam every time it threatens to take off.

There are some really nicely handled scenes, however, most particularly a touching interlude in which George decides to take an Italian cookery class.

There he meets a woman called Melanie (Bryce Dallas Howard), with whom a meaningful relationship might seem possible. But the first time he touches her hands he sees visions of past traumas, and when she eventually finds out about his gift she pesters him for a reading. The segments involving the twins (played by real-life twins Frankie and George McLaren) are also genuinely moving, but seem to come from an entirely different film. And, in fact, Hereafter's dramatic problems stem from an absence of tension and a tardy and rushed connection between its three principal characters.

These flaws can be traced to Peter Morgan's script, which gets so lost in intriguing descriptions of the afterlife that it devotes insufficient attention to its drama. There are strong performances from the charismatic Celine de France and from Damon, who brings a kind of truthfulness to every role. But Clint Eastwood is probably the wrong person for this job, and imposes no distinctive visual style that might have held the whole thing together.

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