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REVIEW: Dallas Buyers Club: Aids activists, Oscar baits

Review Drama

DALLAS BUYERS CLUB (R21)

116 minutes/Opens tomorrow/ *** 1/2

The story: Based on the true story of Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey), electrician and rodeo-gambling fixer, who in 1985 is diagnosed with HIV, the virus that causes Aids, and is given 30 days to live. The resourceful Woodroof bribes hospital staff for doses of AZT, the only approved drug, but is soon ill enough to be hospitalised. There, he meets another Aids patient, the transgender Rayon (Jared Leto), who repulses the homophobic Woodroof. Woodroof soon finds that the authorities and pharmaceutical companies are suppressing a variety of drugs. With Rayon's help, he becomes a medical entrepreneur, as well as an activist.

Wins by Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto at the Screen Actors Guild Awards last week, for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor respectively, make it all but certain that the pair will also go home with Oscars in the same categories.

And this work does find most of its heart, humour and charm through their performances.

Leto is especially pivotal. His Rayon stays away from portrayals of the transgendered person as loud drag queen or bitchy comic-relief.

Wan and painfully vulnerable, Rayon softens and humanises the racist, homophobic folk hero Woodroof. Leto is mesmerising to watch and the bickering between his character and McConaughey's is by turns sad and very funny.

So much so that when Leto is absent from the screen, the film's spark largely vanishes, laying open the mechanics of its by-the-numbers biopic structure.

It becomes far too obvious, for example, that some characters are composite creations. The Food and Drug Administration agent (Michael O'Neill) and policeman (Steve Zahn) are clunky embodiments of the status quo, as is the medical stooge of Big Pharma, Dr Sevard (Denis O'Hare).

Actress Jennifer Garner's selfless, heroic Dr Eve Saks suffers from a badly underwritten part, one that exists mainly to provide a token female presence. Dr Saks is largely a cipher representing the good face of the medical industry and a foil highlighting Woodroof's political shift from the right of Genghis Khan to the left of John F. Kennedy.

Montreal-based director Jean-Marc Vallee (The Young Victoria, 2009) relies on a script based on interviews conducted by screenwriter Craig Borten, who had read about Woodroof's fight with the Food and Drug Administration in a news article.

Vallee's gift for extracting fine performances from actors saves this work.

The recent furore in Singapore over cuts to The Wolf Of Wall Street (from which five minutes of sex and swearing were removed to meet R21 guidelines), prompts this message: The version of this in cinemas will have one utterance of a curse snipped for reasons of religious sensitivity. The edit is unnoticeable.