Actress' performance is a `Guilty' pleasure

Miniseries: Marcia Gay Harden brings Oscar-winning talent to her role as a woman with a wandering eye.

February 09, 2002|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Guilty Hearts might look like a modern-day, true-crime network miniseries, but its message is straight out of 1940s Hollywood film noir.

That message goes something like this: Listen, you middle-aged, middle-class, American women. You might think your husband is a rumpled, overweight, insensitive guy who drinks beer and watches ballgames on TV instead of visiting museums and going to concerts with you.

But you are wrong. And, if you dare to sample the forbidden fruit of a man who seems too good to be true, terrible things will happen. Dream Guy will turn out to be a monster, your family will be torn asunder, people will die, and there will be blood on your hands.

This is the network miniseries as keeper of middle-class mores - the story told around the campfire just before bedtime that warns what happens to those who stray outside the boundaries of behavior prescribed by the tribal elders.

Ladies, be warned.

That said, Guilty Hearts also is, for the most part, a viewing delight. I'm talking about entertainment now, not the sociology of its message, or the way that such miniseries reinforce the social order.

And the show's greatest pleasure is the performance of Academy Award-winning Marcia Gay Harden as Jenny Moran, a church organist with a bad hairdo, troubled marriage and wandering eye. Treat Williams isn't half-bad either as the good-looking, highly successful medical doctor and church board member with a great haircut on whom her eye settles. By the standards of most miniseries, Williams' performance as the charming, sexy, manipulative Dr. Stephen Carrow would be the stuff of which rave reviews are written, but it's only a strong second compared to the work of Harden.

My comment about the haircuts might seem gratuitous now, but I guarantee that 10 minutes into the film, you're going to wonder why, in such an otherwise big-budget production, the producers stuck its star, Harden, with such an awful-looking hairstyle or wig - it's hard to tell which it is. But 20 minutes into the film, you'll start to see how much that awkward-looking, plain cut defines the character of Jenny Moran.

It was a daring choice by Harden, the kind that regularly is made in good independent films, but almost never in network miniseries. Give her credit for taking the risk and having the talent to make it work.

Jenny's arc is one that will hook viewers. She's not exactly mousy at the start, but she has an insecurity bordering on timidity, especially when she's playing the organ at the upscale congregation at which she and the family of Dr. Carrow worship. Harden is marvelous in creating this Jenny: eyes downcast, uncertain in her body movements and rarely smiling except to herself. She steals glances during the church services at Dr. Carrow, his stylish wife and their two pretty, college-age daughters.

Jenny's more assertive at home with her husband (Gary Basaraba) and their three kids. He sells computer systems, and they live in a more downscale part of town than the Carrows. Again, Harden expresses Jenny's emotional state with her body language. You would feel the depth of her dissatisfaction even without the words with which Jenny tries to communicate it. The movements here are less uncertain, but no less awkward - only now you feel the anger and the repressed emotion behind them.

You'll feel Jenny bloom as she and Dr. Carrow move from bumping into each other at recitals and museum openings to secret trysts at a cabin he owns. Harden makes you believe in that, too. In fact, she even makes you believe that the relationship is good for Jenny.

That's before somebody dies as a result of their affair, and somebody goes to jail for life.

Guilty Hearts

When: Tomorrow and Wednesday night at 9

Where: WJZ (Channel 13)

In brief: A modern-day, true-crime miniseries with a film noir message.

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