"The writing is excellent and the dialogue witty"

It's been 20 years since director Stephen Frears, writer Christopher Hampton and star Michelle Pfeiffer collaborated on the celebrated costume drama Dangerous Liaisons (for which Pfeiffer was nominated for an Oscar). Cheri is a romantic drama which contains all of the elements of a successful love story but somehow ends up feeling more like a casual fling than a full-blown love affair.

Based on two novels by Collette, Cheri takes place in Belle Époque period in 1920s Paris, where courtesans were among the most influential and wealthy members of society even if they weren't openly accepted as such. Cheri, the foppish son of successful courtesan Madame Peloux (Kathy Bates) played by Rupert Friend (who looks like a cross between Marc Bolan and Orlando Bloom) falls in love with Lea, a once celebrated if now ageing courtesan who is considering retirement.

They begin an affair which lasts six years, but they are forced to abandon their happiness as Cheri's mother plans for him to marry the much younger Edmee (Felicity Jones) in a planned ceremony. Lea withdraws to another part of France in search of another lover, bitterly trying to hide her emotions at breaking the courtesan's rule of "never fall in love". But inevitably, neither Lea nor Cheri can find happiness with their replacement lovers and are inexorably reunited in Paris.

The writing is excellent and the dialogue witty. The subtle power-plays and manoeuvring between the blusteringly inquisitive Madame Peloux and the quietly evasive Lea are great to see; much is said by what is left unsaid.

But it's Michelle Pfeiffer who steals the show in a powerful performance as Lea, exuding elegance and beauty as well as a pained fragility as a woman who has relied on her looks for her success but is now aware of the realities of growing old. It's scarcely believable she's 50; she's still strikingly beautiful.

Rupert Friend makes a credible partner; his feminine and conceited Cheri is almost more like a cherished son than a lover to the much older and experienced Lea but his character remains too undeveloped and too shallow to have any real resonance. It's still a mystery by the end of the film what Lea sees in such a spoilt brat and so their relationship feels puzzling rather than electrifying.

The costume design and sets are wonderful to behold, framing the drama beautifully. It's something which is very easy to overlook when it's done right, but painfully obvious when it's done badly and here it serves to highlight the flamboyance of the period - silks, pearls, jewellery, sweeping dresses and lavishly decorated and extravagant interiors are a feast for the eye.

It's a shame the same can't be said of Stephen Frears' wry narration which, while serving to link disparate scenes together in witty and amusing ways, feels clunky and artificial.

Cheri is a welcome reunion of Frears, Hampton and Pfeiffer and worth seeing for Pfeiffer's performance alone but it lacks the depth and chemistry that a film driven by passion demands and so, like Cheri's arranged marriage, is ultimately unsatisfying.