Actress Joanne Woodward is just one of many good things in 'Foreign Affairs'

March 17, 1993|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

"Foreign Affairs" is the made-for-TV sleeper of the month. And, with a bunch of highly promoted network junk-movies on this week, you're liable to miss this little cable gem at 8 tonight on TNT if you're not careful.

The film is based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Alison Lurie. And the script does the book some justice. But it's Joanne Woodward and Brian Dennehy, the stars, who deserve the prizes for their work in the TV adaptation.

Woodward plays Vinnie Minor, a professor of English at a small American college who goes to England for research on her next book. Dennehy plays Chuck Mumpson, an engineer with Tulsa Civic and Hydraulic, who goes to England on holiday. Her field is children's literature, his is sanitation.

"We handle everything from the bottom on down," is the elegant way he describes his job, as he settles into the plane seat next to Minor and launches a non-stop monologue. When she finally hands him a copy of "Little Lord Fauntleroy," to try to shut him up during the flight, he says, "I saw the movie on TV. I didn't know the book had come out."

It's a mismatch made in dialog heaven, a kind of old-fashioned movie with charm and attention to detail. Two of the nicest details are a result of careful casting for supporting players: Eric Stolz in the role of Minor's protege and Ian Richardson as an aging, gay, English snob who gives Minor wise if painful advice on life, love and men.

The man Minor winds up needing the most advice on is the unlikely Mumpson. No more clues will be supplied in this preview about the twists the plot takes. But, know this: "Foreign Affairs" is about more than just gentle laughter at Mumpson's expense. It's also about prejudice, loss and learning.

Director Jim O'Brien ("The Jewel in the Crown") handles these soft landings and moments-of-awful-truth scenes with understated finesse. And they are made all the more memorable and powerful by his touch. This is a film that has several reasons for celebration.

Not the least of the reasons is Woodward, who continues to be simply amazing in major film portraits ("Mr. and Mrs. Bridge"), as well as in smaller performances for TV. She is an attractive actress who has made a career of playing plain women, which is like making audiences believe day is night, white is black or up is down. She's a kind of magician, a wizard at the very special effects that pure acting can pull off.

Her most special effect is to show us the human heart. It's a secret she's been sharing with us for more than 30 years. And each time she does it, Woodward makes it seem like a total surprise.

("Foreign Affairs" will also air at 10 p.m. and midnight tonight and at other times this week and next.)

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