'Peak': Polite society's delightfully wicked ways

June 10, 1994|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

Imagine Agatha Christie with a sense of humor -- hard, I know, but try! -- and you may gain some perception of the delight to be encountered in "Widow's Peak," which opens today at the Rotunda and the Towson Commons.

Wickedly plotted, full of joyous malice and nasty behavior, and boasting real bite at the end, "Widow's Peak" is sheer pleasure. It's one of those few movies that might respond to Alice Roosevelt Longworth's dictum, "If you can't say something good about someone, sit right here by me."

In the '20s, the smug little Irish burg of Kilshannon is ruled by a class of surviving matriarchs, all of whom cluster upon a hill that has therefore picked up the nickname Widow's Peak. The most stern of these mavens of rectitude -- the richest, the one who lives at the top of the hill in the grandest house -- is the formidable Mrs. Doyle-Counihan (the great Joan Plowright, a specialist in formidability).

It must be said of Mrs. Doyle-Counihan that in her deft hands, mourning becomes electric. Lord and master of all she surveys, she runs Widow's Peak with the aplomb of a Genghis Khan, settling matters the proper way, without a shred of doubt.

Thus she has moved poor Miss O'Hare (Mia Farrow, in a role originally written for her mother, Maureen O'Sullivan) into a dreary little cottage, where poor Miss O'Hare is to be left alone while she settles into a kind of dotty madness. The dentist tries to romance her, but she's so furtive and strange she seems a lost case. It's so sad, as Miss O'Hare might have much to offer under other circumstances. But Mrs. Doyle-Counihan knows what's right.

Into this demi-Eden comes a serpent. Blond and strangely unafraid, an adventurous American girl who seems to have wandered in from a film noir, Edwina (Natasha Richardson) claims to be the widow of an officer and has fancy ways to her. Quickly enough she sweeps up poor Mrs. Doyle-Counihan's dreary son, Godfrey (Adrian Dunbar), and convinces him he's in love. She even manages to entrance Mrs. Doyle-Counihan herself, who parts the waters for her in what passes for society.

This, of course, makes her the sworn enemy of poor Miss O'Hare, who resents the ease with which she moves about, the way she manages to become the center of attention, the way in which she quickly usurps even pathetic Miss O'Hare's desperate place in the pecking order. To make it even worse, Miss O'Hare just can't keep up with Edwina's spirit of antic nastiness and is continually being made the butt of her cruel jokes.

Thus it is that Miss O'Hare decides to get the goods on Edwina, before it's too late and the village embraces her totally. So on one front, the movie is an exercise in cat-and-mouse warfare, played against a backdrop of a dozing, placid society. But of course there remains the delicious possibility, deftly hinted at, that things are not quite as they seem.

The best thing about "Widow's Peak," other than its audacity, is the way it plays its cards so close to the vest. Written by the Irish playwright Hugh Leonard ("Da"), the script is patient enough to seem to be one thing for the longest time while it is all the while something entirely different. It has some outrageous twists and yanks, all flawlessly logical, all deeply amusing.

It's a treat.

"Widow's Peak"

Starring Mia Farrow, Joan Plowright and Natasha Richardson

Directed by John Irvin

Released by Fine Line

Rated PG

***

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