A super directorial debut by Reeve

April 19, 1997|By Chris Vognar | Chris Vognar,DALLAS MORNING NEWS

The terms "cable movie" and "minimalist filmmaking" aren't often used together in the same sentence.

But most cable movies don't possess the quiet polish and power of "In the Gloaming," Christopher Reeve's directorial debut, which airs tomorrow on HBO.

"In the Gloaming" has been much publicized as the return of former Superman Reeve, paralyzed from the neck down in an equestrian accident two years ago. While Reeve's bravery certainly makes for a moving sidelight, the film itself has folks buzzing about his promise behind the camera.

"Gloaming" stars Robert Sean Leonard ("Dead Poets Society," "Much Ado About Nothing" and the current production of "The TC Glass Menagerie" at Center Stage in Baltimore) as Danny, a young man with AIDS who has come home to die. Unfortunately, home is not necessarily where the heart is.

Dad, played with rigid distance by David Strathairn, has trouble acknowledging his son's presence, let alone his illness or his sexuality. His mom (Glenn Close) wants to serve ice cream on the patio and wait for Danny's AIDS to go away, and his yupped-out sister (Bridget Fonda) still harbors resentment toward her brother's "preferred" treatment as a child.

It's a bit too much at times -- especially with Fonda's character, who appears in only two scenes and serves primarily as a plot device. But Reeve packs plenty of icy family chemistry into the one-hour production. This is a film about people imploding in the face of crisis.

Leonard and Close get most of the screen time, and they stand out in an excellent cast. Shaken from her doldrums -- a bit too easily -- by Whoopi Goldberg's softly taciturn nurse, Mother embarks on a mission to know her son, and in the process saves the household -- and the film -- from freezing over.

Close can still turn a solid character into a sublime creation, be it with a long sigh, a glance or a song. Crooning her son to sleep with "Danny Boy," she chokes up short on the final verse and suddenly makes it OK to jerk a few audience tears. She also has the advantage of playing the most sympathetic character, the only family member who grows -- and glows -- over the course of the story.

Leonard is movingly wry and somewhat fatalistic; like the film itself, he eschews melodrama where the temptation was surely strong.

His physical transformation is also subtle -- entering his family's home with a tired swagger, he goes from long stretches in bed to coughing up blood to a wary, dignified request for "some decent music" at the funeral.

Slowly unfolding over four autumnal months, "In the Gloaming" isn't afraid of long, atmospheric silences and generous close-ups; Reeve has clearly seen his share of Bergman, or at least Woody Allen's knock-offs of Bergman.

The film never becomes a study in moroseness, thanks to the central mother-son relationship, but neither does it whitewash or cheapen a poignantly simple story.

In the wrong hands, "In the Gloaming" very easily could have been forced and sentimental. But Reeve has come up with an impressively understated work, a bit short for its subject but still a bright harbinger of a second career.

'In the Gloaming'

When: Tomorrow at 9 p.m.

Where: HBO

Pub Date: 4/19/97

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