Pierre Dury, Sony Pictures Classics
Off-screen romantic pair Stuart Townshend and Charlize Theron fail to make sparks on-screen in wartime romance "Head in the Clouds."

"Head in the Clouds" is a pretty apt description for at least part of what's wrong with the film itself. This would-be wartime epic romance is so intent on setting a dream-like atmosphere that it fails to develop either the situation or characters in a convincing fashion.

But that's not the only problem. Actress Charlize Theron is equally to blame. Theron, fresh off her impressive Oscar-winning turn in 2003's "Monster," takes a great career step backward by giving the kind of awkward, painful-to-watch performance you'd normally expect from a former fashion model.

You also have to wonder if she might not have pressured the filmmakers to cast off-screen romantic interest, the bland Stuart Townshend, as her on-screen romantic interest. He stars as Guy, a Cambridge University student who is blind-sided when temptation and passion step into his life for the first time.

Both things are personified by Gilda Besse (Theron), the hedonistic daughter of a French aristocrat. Their supposed one-night relationship becomes more than that over time, then the two would-be lovers are torn apart by, first, the Spanish Civil War, and, eventually, World War II.

The idealistic Guy becomes a freedom fighter, joining their mutual acquaintance, Mia (Penelope Cruz), who is serving as a nurse. Gilda, though, has become the lover of an influential Nazi officer (Thomas Kretschmann).

Surprisingly, it's not Theron that Townshend has any chemistry with. It's Cruz, whose character is the only one of interest here. That's because she invests more in her underwritten role than it probably deserves.

Unfortunately, both her character and the tantalizing love triangle subplot are overlooked in favor of the pairing between Theron and Townshend.

And the silly, soap opera-like turns in their relationship only get more ridiculous as the film goes on. Writer/director John Duigan's attention to detail may be impressive at times, but too often he appears to be working on the look of the piece rather than the tone. (There are instances when the film is too light-hearted, considering what's actually going on.)

"Head in the Clouds" is rated R for scenes of wartime violence (shootings, explosive mayhem and violence against women), simulated sex, female and partial male nudity, scattered use of strong sexual profanity, gore, crude sexual talk, and a brief scene of torture. Running time: 121 minutes.

E-MAIL: jeff@desnews.com