SARAH, PLAIN and Tall" paints a simple, rich portrait of love and family, using a series of vignettes as an artist would delicate strokes of the brush to fill its canvas with touching, realistic warmth.
Based on the Newbery Medal-winning novella by Patricia MacLachlan, who co-authored the screenplay, this CBS Hallmark Hall of Fame presentation tells of a Kansas farmer, a widower named Jacob, who advertises for a wife to help him raise his young daughter and son. Sarah, a proud woman from a fishing family in Maine, answers.
Christopher Walken plays Jacob and Glenn Close is Sarah. Once you get beyond the I've-won-the-lottery idea of advertising for a wife and having Glenn Close show up, you are drawn into the delicate dance of this quiet quartet as they sort out their lives and their memories, their loyalties and their loves.
Set in the late 19th century, "Sarah, Plain and Tall," which will be on Channel 11 (WBAL) Sunday night at 9 o'clock, is very much a story of its time, filled with hardship and resilience, but its applicability to America in the '90s, full as it is of families that have been torn apart and put back together like so many pieces of a puzzle, is abundantly evident.
Close, who is one of the executive producers of the film, became interested in the project when she was asked to record the book on tape.
"At first I said no, that I was too busy," Close said in a recent interview in Los Angeles. "And then I read the book and I couldn't get it out of my mind. So I went back and did it and through that met Patty MacLachlan. She said there had been a lot of inquiries about making it into a movie and would I be interested. That was the beginning."
Close said she found the character of Sarah in her own family. "I come from a long line of Yankee women," she said.
"Sarah fit into a kind of tradition in New England at that time of spinsters. You see them a lot in Henry James novels. If you weren't married at a certain age you became, as they are described in the book, unclaimed treasures.
"I think Sarah is one of those people who was born with a stronger sense of self, who didn't want to settle for what people expected, and who had the courage to go into the unknown."
Director Glenn Jordan takes advantage of a nice location in Kansas to give some sense of the sweep of the just-tamed prairie, a sea of grass that finally comes to replace the ocean that was so dear to Sarah.
When she arrives at this farm, Sarah finds a family that has still not reconciled itself to the death of the mother and wife, Katharine, which happened perhaps five years before. For young Caleb, his mother is not even a memory, just a series of stories, so he has, as Sarah says, "plenty of room" for her.
But the older daughter, Anna, resents the implication that this woman has come to take the place of the memory of her mother. As for Jacob, he has retreated from the world in the wake of Katherine's death and fears the inevitability of pain on re-emergence.
The duet he dances with Sarah becomes a battle between Yankee ingenuity and Midwestern reticence. But before it can be resolved, Sarah has to recognize that she, too, must let go of her own past if they are to face the future together.
Though she is about as far from "plain" as you're going to get, Close's immense talents and extraordinary sensitivity make Sarah believable, her journey understandable. Walken, clearly playing against type, effectively captures the delicate balancing act that has becomes Jacob's life.
But the screen is almost taken over by Christopher Bell, who plays Caleb. Just 6 years old -- unable even to read, so the script had to be read to him so he could learn his lines -- he seems too young and naive to have adapted any of the affected mannerisms that so often afflict child actors. His performance comes through pure and unadorned and thus with a real emotional power.
Though the work of Lexi Randall, who plays Anna, suffers by comparison, she more than holds her own in a difficult role that requires her to take her character through a subtle transformation.
If "Sarah, Plain and Tall" has any failing, it is in its ending which, though it seems inevitable, comes across as sappy and melodramatic, lacking the subtle complexities that suffuse the rest of the film.
Still, "Sarah, Plain and Tall" is one of those rare movies that is heartwarming without being contrived, touching without being manipulative.