'The Rector's Wife' is a masterpiece of public TV theater

October 07, 1994|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

What might be the high point of the season on "Masterpiece Theatre" begins a three-week run at 9 p.m. Sunday. "The Rector's Wife," starring Lindsay Duncan and Jonathan Coy, is not to be missed.

Based on the controversial 1992 novel by Joanna Trollope, "The Rector's Wife" examines the life and tiny, circumscribed world of Anglican rector, his wife and family.

The drama begins when the rector, Peter Bouverie, played to perfection by Coy, fails to get a promotion to archdeacon. With the promotion, he would have been able to lift his family -- his wife, played brilliantly by Duncan, and two children -- out of a near-poverty existence.

His daughter, for instance, wears a winter coat from the church-sponsored used clothing sale, and her schoolmates never let her forget it.

The novel and the film are a serious look at the politics and mores of the Anglican Church in a small town. Its sights are set on showing how archaic, constricting and rigid the role of the rector's wife can become under the rules.

There are an endless number of odd jobs in the parish that can only be performed, according to convention, by the rector's wife -- such as hand-delivering the midweek circulars. Furthermore, she must deliver them on foot, by hand, in person, whether there are 50 parishioners or 3,000.

When Anna Bouverie, the rector's wife, decides to take a part-time job at a supermarket so she can send her daughter to a private school and break the monotony of jam sandwiches at home, the congregation is apoplectic. Most of them see her act )) as a slap at the parish and the church.

But no one is more apoplectic than her husband. He is humiliated by what he considers an act of defiance.

Her part-time job causes a tidal wave of reaction. She's taken to be something on the order of a revolutionary rather than a person in her own right who happens to be the rector's wife.

All of this is precisely and insightfully dramatized by Hugh Whitemore, whose screenplay forces the viewer to wonder if there isn't something wrong with the system if such a seemingly logical and innocuous act can cause this kind of furor.

The great strength of the program is its ability to portray a marriage and a community with clarity, sympathy and intelligence. Even the smallest details of the smallest roles are perfectly rendered.

In that regard, "The Rector's Wife" is something like a Faberge egg. Prunella Scales, for example, is mesmerizing in her eight minutes on centerstage as an embittered wife, near the end of the film.

This "Masterpiece Theatre" production is almost perfect. It's only flaws are the introductory and closing remarks from host Russell Baker. Particularly, before the second and third hour, he does everything but make a face at the story and its themes, undercutting both.

Baker calls "The Rector's Wife" a film about a woman who "desperately needs what popular psychology now calls fulfillment." He almost chokes on the last word.

He casts the drama as a woman's search for a "sensitive man," another term that threatens to bring up the host's bile.

What Baker doesn't tell viewers is that Anna Bouverie is supposed to be a modern version of Emma Bovary, Gustav Flaubert's heroine of "Madame Bovary." Both are married women who scandalize their worlds.

That is the kind of connection that Alistair Cooke used to help viewers make on the road to a richer viewing experience. Baker fills most of his time on camera with pointless discussions of Charles II, King Edward VII, Hillary Rodham Clinton and the many wives of Henry VIII.

It's an "A" for "The Rector's Wife," and an "F" for the host.

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