Let this not be the spot for grousing about the Academy Awards, save for mentioning in the most off-hand way I can that I've now seen four of the five nominees for the 2009 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, and the winner, The Secret in Their Eyes, is the fourth-best of them. I phrase it in that way because, unlike some winners of that award in recent years, the Argentine feature is hardly "bad" - it is by all means a fun, though noticeably ill-paced police procedural and character sketch. It is also, in the mind of a plurality of very inexplicable voters, a better motion picture than Un prophète, which is like declaring The Counterfeiters superior to 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. OH WAIT.

The film opens around the turn of the millennium: an aging man named Benjamín Esposito (Ricardo Darín) is trying out several openings for a true crime novel he's trying to start. His struggles eventually take him to the office of district attorney Irene Menéndez Hastings (Soledad Villamil), who was a new member of the justice department office where Esposito worked in 1974, when he was investigating the very same case that now serves as the basis for his novel; a case that he's never been able to work out of his system in all the years since.

The story proper thus takes the form of flashbacks in Esposito's mind as he reconstructs his personal history, with occasional dips back to the days, 25 years later, as he grapples with the reasons that he's forcing himself to relive those events. A young woman, Liliana Coloto (Carla Quevedo) was found raped and beaten to death, leaving her new husband Ricardo Morales (Pablo Rago) a broken-down shell of a man; Esposito and his alcoholic partner Pablo Sandoval (Guillermo Francella) throw themselves into the task of finding the killer, not only for justice's sake, but to offer whatever comfort they can to the grieving husband. It takes hardly any time to figure out that all the evidence points to one of Liliana's old boyfriends, Isidoro Gómez (Javier Godino), but finding him - and then nailing him - turns out to be fraught with complexity and ultimately, even political ramifications.

Points to the movie for having almost ludicrous ambition: you can't tell from the plot synopsis I just laid out, but The Secret in Their Eyes manages to include, in its 129 minutes, a broadside attack against the injustice of the Argentine legal system, a tragic love story, a police procedural, and a thoughtful, metaphorically-laden look at how people become obsessed. I am likely forgetting something.

The degree to which it's successful in pursuing any of these particular avenues is up for debate, though it's hard to imagine anybody flat-out hating the movie. What works is mostly not due to the script (adapted from Eduardo Sacheri's novel by himself and the film's director, Juan José Campanella), nor anything particular in the way the material is presented, but thanks to a perfectly excellent cast; with the meatiest, most ambiguous character, it is only logical that Darín should end up the stand-out, but virtually no-one with a speaking role fails to hit the core of their character with precision and aplomb.

But since it is Esposito's story - literally! - it seems right to focus on Darín's performance, and the way that the actor teases out the protagonist's unspoken depths. It's not fair to say that he plays elements of Esposito that aren't in the screenplay, rather that he plays the elements of the screenplay that could be dramatised outright. When the film is over and the lights come up, what we're mostly left with is the picture of a man who can't give up the past, for reasons that only become gradually clear. Darín underplays the 1974-'75 scenes perfectly well, but the genius of his work lies in the scenes of Esposito as a weary retiree, when he lets his face, staring quietly at his developing novel, explain everything we need to know about what this man felt and feels about the events of that investigation, how it nags at him like a wound. Only in the last shots do we understand why, but it's an engaging enough characterisation prior to that time, that we don't really find the film's lack of overt exposition tremendously unsatisfying.

On the whole, though, The Secret in Their Eyes isn't terribly special. Oh, it's a perfectly good procedural, made somewhat more interesting that it's not a whodunnit as much as a how-do-we-catch-him. Campanella does basically two things, as far as I can tell: direct Argentina's Oscar nominees (he's only made one other feature since 2001's Foreign Film nominee Son of the Bride, the last time that country had a dog in the race), and direct episodes of American procedurals, most notably 17 episodes of Law and Order: SVU. His work in this film certainly doesn't feel like a television cop show, although the time spent on the small screen has had a telling effect: his visual sense is heavily dependent upon close-ups and medium shots, and very little in The Secret in Their Eyes is visually engaging in any way. Which is a shame, for when Campanella cuts loose and lets style reign, the results are easily the best moments in the film: the cryptic opening scenes, in which each of Esposito's false starts on his book are dramatised in extraordinarily different ways, or a magnificent show-off long take (digitally stitched together, I have no doubt), which begins as an aerial view of Buenos Aires and ends in a speedy tracking shot through the bowls of a football stadium.

Would that the rest of the movie had been directed by the crazy bravura madman who thought up that insane single-take scene! But for the most part, The Secret in Their Eyes is precisely as good as it has to be, and no better: attractive without distinction, just obscure enough in its intentions (as with, say, its title, changed from the novel's The Question in Their Eyes) that it seems very smart and mysterious, though it is merely interesting. I'll admit, that the slow development of the frame story, with old Escobito, is a fairly genuine mystery. But outside of that, the film is servicably entertaining and rather too draggy in its depiction of the murder case that's allegedly so captivating that Escobito has clung to it for 25 years. For him, maybe, but I'd be surprised if I still remembered most of the details a month from now.