My heart sinks a bit when I hear actors praised for ‘bravery’. While I’m sure that doing Hamlet six nights and one matinée a week can take its toll, it’s not exactly bomb disposal, is it? Nonetheless, it’s hats – and everything else – off to Meg Ryan for taking on the lead in Jane Campion’s adaptation of Susanna Moore’s 1995 novel about an academic who becomes entangled with a homicide detective investigating gory murders of young women. The jury is still out as to whether this move will further hasten her career demise (does anyone even remember Kate and Leopold (2002), her last venture into romcom territory?) or lead to awards season glory, but you can’t say she’s afraid to try something different.

Ryan plays Frannie, an English professor at Columbia University in New York who fancies herself as a poet and has a burgeoning professional interest in sexually charged slang. While meeting a student in a bar, she takes a wrong turn on the way to the ladies and witnesses a sexual act taking place in the shadows (one which was voluntarily edited by Campion to ensure the film received an R rating in the US, but which, if the version I saw is anything to go by, remains uncut for international release). Soon after, the woman involved is dead and Frannie is interviewed by worldly Detective Malloy (Mark Ruffalo), who wastes little time in declaring his attraction. As the relationship between this oddest of couples develops, Frannie and her half-sister (Jennifer Jason Leigh) re-evaluate their experiences of sex and romance (their father left Frannie’s mother after a whirlwind courtship), endure the unwanted attentions of Frannie’s ex (a splendid and surprisingly affecting cameo from Kevin Bacon) and attempt to stay safe on the New York streets that are home to a killer who remains insistently within their orbit.

So there’s a lot going on in In the Cut but, as it is the work of one of the most original directors around, you won’t be surprised to know that it doesn’t have much truck with the conventions of serial killer thrillers (although a couple of superbly staged sequences suggest that Campion could turn her hand to such a thing with confidence). Rather, and very much in keeping with Moore’s novel, it’s an exploration of the inner life of a sexually and romantically undernourished woman in early middle-age whose expectations are reawakened by a combination of aggressive masculinity and physical and psychological threat (where this leaves feminist readings of the film is anyone’s guess, frankly).

Campion’s film is suffused with bruised reds and glowing yellows, a palette that brings to mind Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (1999) – another film that explores the margins of sexual obsession. Other film references date from the early 1970s – this isn’t the breezy New York of today, but rather the shadowy, threatening city of Klute (1971) and The French Connection (1971). Where the film really scores is in capturing the queasy inevitability of the novel. The reader feels early on that things are not going to end happily for Frannie, and her ongoing involvement with Malloy is mirrored by an ever increasing sense of threat (there is more than a hint of masochism on Frannie’s part in the book which the film subtly reworks as Frannie empoweringly embracing her desires).

Ryan is excellent as a woman surprised and confused by her attraction to the detective – one which is given an extra frisson by her suspicions that he may be the killer – and the film faithfully follows the novel (adapted with Campion by Moore) as Frannie’s world begins to disintegrate around her. But – and it’s a big but – Campion and Moore cannot go all the way. The devastating conclusion to the novel is reworked into an ending that, if not conventionally ‘happy’, is at least a lot less uncomfortable.

While I normally couldn’t care less about whether adaptations are ‘faithful’ to their source, in this instance it’s depressing that the film-makers, or their backers, refused to follow through and deliver the emotional punch that the material really insists upon. The result is a lingering sense of bad faith that a mass audience can’t be ‘trusted’ to accept the virtually inevitable ending – this in the same year that a summer blockbuster, Terminator 3, did good business with a climax that wiped out the large mass of the human race in a nuclear holocaust. Is it not conceivable that a mid-budget drama with a star actress and a ‘name’ director could have the courage of its convictions too?