So many of cinema's great characters have been accidental heroes: Charlie Chaplin's The Tramp; Star Wars' cynic Han Solo, even Eddie Murphy's con-artist in Trading Places have all triumphed despite themselves. Tales of the ordinary man or flawed characters doing remarkable things are just much more entertaining than watching pumped-up action stars wielding their armoury. (Yes, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis, I'm talking to you.)
My personal favourite of these reluctant protagonists is Cary Grant's unfortunate advertising executive in Alfred Hitchcock's classic North by Northwest. Grant escapes the pursuing foreign agents with handsome agility, but more impressive is his fleet-of-foot in overcoming a convoluted, implausible plot that would be the death-knell for lesser movies. Francois Cluzet uses the same mix of guile, charm and comedy that served Grant so well to do something very similar in this excellent adaptation of the American crime writer Harlan Coben's Tell No One.
Cluzet looks anything but the hero. At 52 years old, he has a rounded face and a slight paunch. However, and this is really what counts, this favourite of Claude Chabrol is one of France's best actors, in the mould of Dustin Hoffman, and here he's in top form. He plays the paediatrician Dr Alexandre Beck, who's given an almighty shock when he receives an e-mail seemingly from his wife (Marie-Josée Croze), who he thought had been murdered eight years previously. Just as his spouse, Margot, resurfaces, so do some mean and nasty looking thugs. To make matters worse, the good doctor finds that he is once again suspected of killing his wife when the murder weapon mysteriously turns up at his house. Beck, with his world turned upside down, now finds himself on the run from the police and whoever is trying to stop him from discovering the truth. Can he find his wife before it's too late?
The plot runs away with itself, containing more twists and turns than a Formula 1 racetrack. That it's enthralling rather than absurd is largely due to the tremendous supporting cast, including Kristin Scott Thomas, Jean Rochefort and Marina Hands and the excellent directing by Guillaume Canet (yes, the same French heartthrob who starred in The Beach and Love Me If You Dare). Like a supercharged Hitchcock, the director even gives himself a small but pivotal role as a horse-riding champ. Also, like North by Northwest, the standout sequence is a chase. In Tell No One, it sees Beck dodge the traffic on the busy motorway that encircles Paris and ends with a television set being thrown onto a car. It's pulsating, edge-of-the-seat stuff, but just as entertaining as the lively action is the existential crisis that Beck goes through hoping and praying that his wife is alive.
This is as much a romance as a thriller, and the director is writing a love letter to Paris, especially the working class suburbs. Suspend belief and forgive the absurdities and these are two of the most enthralling hours you'll spend in the cinema this year.