There is a certain kind of writer-director that emphasises the first half of that equation: write a great script and then just slap it up on the screen. Woody Allen is the godfather of this mentality (though he is not always beholden to it); men like Barry Levinson is its elder statesman; M. Night Shyamalan is its court fool; Kevin Smith is its slacker brother-in-law who won't ever get off its couch.

The newest member of this august company is Tony Gilroy, whose script for the legal thriller Michael Clayton is very good indeed, and whose direction of the script for the legal thriller Michael Clayton betrays only the faintest hints of personality at the most irregular intervals, and makes no effort to hide itself as the work of a newbie who has logged time with with some very good directors and some significantly weaker directors.

That said, I can't defend calling Gilroy a bad director, just a very cautious one. That's practically a good thing: in the hands of an established genius we call that "restraint," and praise it. But in Michael Clayton it comes off more like a fear that if the director does anything too imaginative, we might lose track of his wonderful story and wonderful language. It's not a coincidence, I don't think, that the best moment in the whole film bar none, and its best-directed moment, is an essentially dialogue-free scene in which a character is ambushed and killed. Taking place in a single gutsy tracking shot that runs back and forth through an apartment (Steadicam, by the looks of it), this character is grabbed, tasered, undressed and injected. It's incredibly intense, one of those classic movie moments where all of a sudden you realise that you've just started breathing again, and it can only be regarded as a triumph of directing and visual storytelling. And every other moment where I noticed myself thinking a particular incident had been particularly well-directed, it was a moment in which spoken dialogue was absent or irrelevant (in the case of a scene that we had already watched one time, and were now seeing again in a totally new context; the film's second most thrilling sequence).

So, Michael Clayton is the story of five days in the live of a fixer for a major New York law firm who starts out having little self-knowledge besides being proud that he is one of the best at what he does, and ends in total disgust at the casual way he and his company have typically brushed off the suffering of innocents. It's a Message Picture, in other words, although not a particularly shrill one, which is nice. Clayton is played by George Clooney in full-on movie star mode - and it still boggles me that our best star in the '30s and '40s sense was just ten years ago failing to get out of the TV ghetto - and that means that his ultimate moral awakening is foreordained, but still a hell of a lot of fun to watch. I'm not going to go down the "career-best performance" road (I'd stick with O Brother or the first Ocean film for that), but it's such a phenomenal star turn that it doesn't matter. When the man is onscreen, he is magnetic, pure and simple.

Usually when there is that kind of central performance, it's easy to loose track of the other characters, and to a certain degree, that happens here: Sydney Pollack, as Clayton's deeply amoral boss, just pretty much does a Sydney Pollack - "I'm irascible! And old! But smart, too!" Tilda Swinton, as the deeply unmoral company lawyer for the film's Ee-vil corporation is actually kind of flat, given her normal intensity, but I'm tempted to call that the role's fault.

The real stand-out is Tom Wilkinson as one of Clayton's other bosses, the one who goes crazy at the start and kicks the whole plot in motion. He's manic-depressive (and don't we know how much actors love the mental disorders?), and Wilkinson's performance is a marvelous collection of twitches and wide-eyed smiles with a nasty violent undertone. It's perhaps even more commanding than Clooney's work, although more self-conscious, and when the two are together (which happens in almost every one of Wilkinson's scenes), it's pretty actorgasmic. Honestly, the two are on such a level when they're working opposite each other that they could perform a dramatic interpretation of a Congressional roll call, and it would be damn electrifying.

See, that's the problem: this is well-acted (even the "bad" performances are well above average), so well-acted that one begins to feel that Michael Clayton would work about as well if it were a videotape of a table reading. The script is good: the structure is very well-balanced and the dialogue is quite delicious. But there's a distinct lack of "the cinema" for most of the film. It's got plenty of painterly shots; for it was filmed by the wonderful Robert Elswit, whose particular speciality, I think, is the sort of boxy, anonymous interiors that make up so much of the film's mise en scène (seriously: the man made Good Night, and Good Luck. look thrilling, and that was a movie full of featureless white walls). Here, he does some interesting things with focus that serve to underscore the story's idea that facts are easily made "fuzzy" (in other words: the poster. Which is magnificent). But the best cinematography in the world can't compensate for the amount of static going on here: it's obvious that Gilroy wanted to keep focus on the acting, and that leaves the film feeling kind of like a particularly well-lit recording of a stage play. He does not create a world, he puts actors in front of the camera. Thank God that those actors are in peak condition, because otherwise two hours of this would be deadly.