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Intimacy zaps you as far from kiddie fare as possible, opening as it does with the sight of two people madly fucking. He is Jay (Mark Rylance), a newly separated father of two living in a shabby London flat. She is Claire (Kerry Fox), housewife, mother, amateur actress.

Tough Jay and Claire meet at the flat every Wednesday afternoon for sweaty bouts of sex, they know nothing about each other. That’s the Last Tango in Paris aspect of the script that director Patrice Chereau and co-screenwriter Anne-Louise Trividic have fashioned from a novel and two short stories, all by Hanif Kureishi. Tango casts a shadow that would cripple the film were it not for the intensity of the actors.

Sexual intercourse is simulated, but the scene in which Claire takes Jay’s penis into her mouth is not. No doubles were used. Fox, the New Zealand actress noted for An Angel at My Table and Shallow Grave, performed oral sex on Rylance, the British actor who is now the artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe theater. Many critics are shocked, shocked — do you hear? But let’s leave the arguments to Rylance and his wife, to Fox and her boyfriend (he wrote an essay about his reaction for a British publication) and maybe the Screen Actors Guild.

What matters is the film, which the unflinching actors do proud. Fox and Rylance are strikingly good, revealing the grieving hearts of their characters. Searching for something closer than sex, Jay — a failed musician who manages a bar — follows Claire, learns she is acting in a local production of The Glass Menagerie and meets and cruelly goads her good-natured cabdriver husband Andy (the funny and touching Timothy Spall). It isn’t the sex that shocks here, it’s the chilling core of loneliness. Intimacy dares to cut deep, and its daring gets to you.

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