A countess and daughter grapple with past in latest from 'Masterpiece Theatre'

January 23, 1993|By Steve McKerrow | Steve McKerrow,Staff Writer

Every family has secrets that prove painful to uncover. But in drama, the process can provide pleasure and surprise for viewers, as illustrated by a new "Masterpiece Theatre" premiering this weekend.

"The Countess Alice," a single-installment British film (on MPT at 9 p.m. tomorrow), tells a captivating story and features a particularly engaging, authoritative performance by Dame Wendy Hiller.

In her portrayal of the title character, Dame Wendy brings a sense of girlishness to the character of an 80-year-old woman, along with an undeniable and hard-won maturity.

We meet the Countess von Holzendorf first in still photographs, as pictured in a 1930s magazine story about a circle of young debutantes who performed in dramatic readings of some kind. Alice played Salome, clad only in seven wispy veils and radiating sensuality.

Cut to the present day, where the same magazine plans an anniversary layout featuring the three surviving members of that cover-story group. And cocky young journalist Nick Black (Duncan Bell) gets the assignment to interview the countess, which does not thrill him.

"I don't want to have to shout down one of those ear trumpets," he complains to his editor.

But in the flesh-and-blood figure, he finds surprising grace and wit. And the bare bones of her biography also intrigue, for in 1935 she had married a German count and lived in Germany throughout World War II.

"I wonder if they were old friends with that dear old Mr. Hitler?" he asks.

The sharp reporter also senses an immediate tension between the countess and her middle-aged daughter, Konstanza (Zoe Wannamaker), with whom she lives. In his first interview session, he learns the daughter plans a trip to Germany in search of her roots, a trip to which her mother is adamantly opposed.

"The past is dead and buried," the countesses admonishes.

In a nice technique, playwright Allan Cubitt's drama alternates scenes between the countess relating her story to the attentive journalist -- or what she chooses to reveal -- while Konstanza makes her way to the country estate of her childhood.

The puzzle she finds can be solved only by a dramatic confrontation with her mother. And if that sounds mysterious, know the resolution is touching and persuasive.

As we have come to expect from "Masterpiece Theatre," this installment boasts high-quality settings throughout and a stately pace that requires patience and attention.

But in the end it rewards with a sense of having shared genuine experiences that teach something about the human riddle.


AWARDS, AWARDS -- Michael Jackson, Whoppi Goldberg, Wesley Snipes and Baltimore-born actor Charles S. Dutton are among the featured performers in "The 25th NAACP Image Awards" broadcast at 11:30 tonight on WMAR-Channel 2.

Taped last week in Pasadena, Calif., the ceremony includes the outstanding television actor award to Mr. Dutton for his live telecast series "Roc," the Fox network show about a Baltimore garbage collector.

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