Few artists in any art form are as compelling or tragic as Vaslav Nijinsky.

The Polish-born star of Diaghilev's Ballets Russes triumphed as a matinee idol, only to suffer ridicule in 1912 thanks to his experimental choreography, though his work is considered years ahead of its time today. Nijinsky plunged into madness and died in an asylum in 1950.

The 1999 publication of his diaries gave troubling afterlife to the agonies of his soul. In them, we can read and glimpse his genius as he moves from despair into insanity. Now, "The Diaries of Vaslav Nijinsky," a modest new movie, combines excerpts from his writings, read by Derek Jacobi, with brief re-creations of his work and contemporary images from director Paul Cox.

Sadly, this noble effort is loving but lame. Jacobi's readings make for a fine audio rendition, but Cox should have settled for a book on tape. His cinematic response is puerile, hokey and amateurish, visually boring the viewer in a movie that adds nothing new to the cult of this unfortunate genius.

Jacobi, though, is a fine choice to give voice to the dancer. The same smooth articulation and childlike grace so perfect for Claudius, his most famous role, is perfect for Nijinsky, too. The dancer's diaries are full of naive wonder. "I am the one who dies when he is not loved," Nijinsky wrote. "My madness is the love of mankind. I am a man in a million. I am a dancer."

Jacobi recites that kind of pronouncement with earnest enthusiasm and juvenile glee. He artfully enacts genuine weeping when Nijinsky describes his own real tears, and he lingers eloquently on the dancer's Walt Whitman-like, "I am God" rhapsodies, phrases that reinforce the notion that madmen and saints aren't very far apart.

Cox deserves credit for the pungency of the selections. Nijinsky's wit is intact ("I believe many people smoke because they want to look important"), as is his wisdom: "The critics always think they are cleverer than the artists."

The film also covers interesting subjects, including Nijinsky's relations with mentor/lover Diaghilev; his life with Romola, his wife; his struggle to create "Jeux"; and his fondness for prostitutes. But the problem is the lack of historic photos and images sufficient to fill a movie. Cox offers plenty of glimpses at existing photos, but there are no movies of Nijinsky, so instead the director treats us to an aimless hodgepodge.

Segments include briefly (and badly) re-enacted silent scenes from the dancer's life, excerpts from dances by Nijinsky (notably "Afternoon of a Faun") and (nonsensically) other choreographers, and truly shopworn sequences of mountains, trees or flowers, especially when nature comes up in the text.

"Nijinsky" is a curious, minor footnote, worthwhile mostly as an excuse to re-examine the original.

2 stars (out of 4)
"The Diaries of Vaslav Nijinsky"
Directed by Paul Cox; based on the diary of Vaslav Nijinsky; photographed by Cox and Hans Sonneveld; original music by Paul Grabowsky; choreography and dance supervision by Alida Chase; produced by Cox and Aanya Whitehead. An Illumination Films and MusicArtsDance Films release; opens Friday at the Gene Siskel Film Center of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, 164 N. State St.; 312-846-2600. Running time: 1:35. No MPAA rating.

Sid Smith is the Chicago Tribune Arts Critic.