By Owen Gleiberman
Updated April 16, 1999 at 04:00 AM EDT

It’s 1977, and Chris (Christian Bale), a 30ish bloke who still has the eager, wistful face of an angelic adolescent, enjoys a placid existence in the London suburbs, taking comfort in his wife (Emily Watson), his baby, and his garden. Yet he’s a haunted man. Spurred by the arrival of Toni (Lee Ross), his rakish counterculture chum, he is tormented by visions of what might have been — the enticing world of sexual possibility he left behind, embodied in memories of his blissed-out love affair with a sultry secretary during his bohe- mian Paris days in the late ’60s.

As the film glides back and forth between eras, the churnings of Chris’ heart come to the fore with disarming intimacy. We feel as if we’re seeing the formation of an individual: his all-too-brief fling with hedonism, the sadness and hidden wisdom of a path that seems to have chosen him rather than the other way around. Metroland is a no-fuss movie that casts a rich, tranquil spell. It’s the rare portrait of a happy marriage that is honest about the complex currents of desire, and the drama is beautifully played by Bale, who gawks with soulful sweetness, and Watson, who does her most piercing work since Breaking the Waves. A-