Just Plain Good

Glenn Close, Christopher Walken and Jack Palance as a Kansas farm family bring superb performances to final installment of the "Sarah, Plain & Tall" trilogy.

November 20, 1999

Sometimes, even in the world of network television, quality is appreciated.

"Sarah, Plain & Tall," that splendid turn-of-the-century story of heartland Americana starring Glenn Close and Christopher Walken, set ratings records when it premiered in 1991, becoming the most-watched Hallmark Hall of Fame presentation in the franchise's then 42-year history. With its audience of 50 million viewers, it remains the highest-rated made-for-TV movie of the decade.

And, now, comes "Sarah, Plain & Tall: Winter's End," the last of three CBS films based on the Newbery Award-winning work of Patricia MacLachlan. "Winter's End" is a superbly acted and beautifully photographed final chapter in this moving saga of a Kansas farm family and the land they love. MacLachlan's script, Glenn Jordan's direction and the photography of Ralf Bode weave of spell of word and image that instantly draws you in and carries you along from one moment of the heart to another until the final credits wake you from their dream of a film.

It opens in the hard Kansas winter of 1918 amid an influenza epidemic at home and World War I overseas. Sarah (Close), the mail-order bride who came to Kansas from her beloved Maine in response to an ad placed by widower Jacob Witting (Walken), has become the anchor of the family, which now includes two children from Jacob's first marriage and one from theirs.

The Witting family is threatened on several fronts in "Winter's End." The most compelling involves the arrival out of the blue of Jacob's father, John (Jack Palance). The elder Witting had abandoned his wife and son when Jacob was a boy, and Jacob had not seen his father since. Jacob's mother had told him John was dead.

John's arrival changes everything. The farm Jacob and Sarah love so much is really his. He's the one who cleared the trees, broke the earth and rolled back the frontier. Will he want it back? If he does, what will become of them?

And how will Jacob handle the relationship? Jacob says he hates the man for what he did to Jacob and his mother. At first, all he wants is for John to leave his family alone.

Don't expect a lot of big action scenes. "Winter's End" is a character study that moves at its own dream-like pace. And what a set of characters to study. The interplay between Walken and Palance is absolutely charged, and what's not to like about anything Close does?

Palance might take some getting used to for some viewers through his first few scenes, because of the squinty-eyed, comic cowboy figure he played in "City Slickers." His Academy Award-winning performance in that film might make you want to laugh when you first see John. But, give it a few minutes, and you will start seeing John the way Jacob, Sarah and their children do as the undertow of family history, father-son antagonism and Sarah's singular strength of character pull you into their world.

Ultimately, this is a story about forgiveness, things unsaid and the fragility of our existence. Near the end of the film, Sarah says to Jacob, "It's all so fragile, this life. Everything can change in the blink of an eye. Time moves on, the moment passes, and it's too late. And that's a shame, don't you think?"

Not only is there a simple, elegant wisdom in the words themselves, but the way in which they are said and received in a late-night, soul-mate conversation between wife and husband also inscribes them on your heart.

Close says she's passionate about the "Sarah" trilogy, and it shows.

"I believe in the material, I love Patty MacLachlan as a writer, and I love these characters," she said in an interview this summer.

Sometimes, even in a "sweeps" month of network television, there is passion to be found.

`Shooting the Past'

"Shooting the Past," a two-part "Masterpiece Theatre" starting tomorrow night on PBS, is one of the absolute highlights of the public television year.

The film, featuring Lindsay Duncan ("The Rector's Wife") and Timothy Spall ("Secrets and Lies"), takes so many risks in the way it tells its story about a library of vintage photos on the verge of oblivion that you are certain writer/director Stephan Poliakoff will never manage to keep the narrative on track for a full three hours.

But the film not only holds together, it also enthralls and delights with its drama of a hopelessly eccentric staff of archivists pitted against a no-nonsense American businessman, Liam Cunningham ("Cracker"), who is about to turn their beloved library into a business college "for the 21st century."

Duncan, with her patrician beauty and air of professional competence, is wonderful as the strong-willed manager of the library who plays cat-and-mouse with Cunningham in an effort to buy time to seek a new home for the 10 million photos to which she has devoted most of her life. As we get inside her life, we find that she is just as ill-equipped to deal with the new world order of mega-corporations, computers and callousness toward loyal employees as any member of her staff.

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