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Widows' Wonderland

With exceptions that I can count on one hand, the movies I've seen since the end of last year's strong summer have been numbingly bad. Even former heroes, from Wim Wenders to Gus Van Sant, have made me want to take up reading. The drip drip drip of my cinematic unhappiness has been so consistent that I'd begun to fear that I was at fault -- that, if studied closely enough with an unjaundiced eye, even The House of the Spirits must surrender some pleasure.

But now I've seen Widows' Peak and feel that, however briefly, the monkey is off my back. Like Enchanted April, one of its spiritual predecessors, Widows' Peak feels like a vacation.

It opens in an Irish village of the 1920s, with a shot of a car driven by a cigar-smoking female chauffeur barreling imperiously through the town's foot traffic and up the hill known as Widows' Peak, for all the widows who live near it. The car bears the town's head widow, Mrs. Doyle Counihan (Joan Plowright). Every Sunday she leads the happily bereaved ("Widowhood is a woman's natural state," according to Mrs. D.C.) on visits to the cemetery. Ever the arbiter of etiquette, Mrs. Doyle Counihan eventually hustles the widows out of the cemetery by saying, "Come along, ladies. We don't want to spoil them." ("Them" being their dead husbands.)

Into this matriarchy -- the Widows' Peak mob runs the town; its men just bumble along -- comes a different kind of widow, Edwina Broome (Natasha Richardson), a lush young blond who lost her husband in the Great War.

Comedy ensues when Edwina takes a shine to Godfrey Doyle Counihan (Adrian Dunbar), the matriarch's son. Miss O'Hare (Mia Farrow) -- who, even though she's never been married, is accepted into the inner circle as a sort of honorary widow -- has an apparently irrational dislike of Edwina. For reasons the audience can't fathom until the movie's end, Miss O'Hare takes steps to see that Edwina doesn't get Godfrey (not that he's any great prize), and Edwina retaliates.

Widows' Peak is great fun nearly throughout. Plowright plays an intensified version of the touchy and intensely proper post-Victorian woman from which she's gotten so much comedic mileage in recent years. Her line readings and precise gestures are little masterpieces of timing. Natasha Richardson brings a floozy's energy and glamour to the proceedings, along with a nearly blinding beauty. As the wackily paranoid Miss O'Hare, Mia Farrow (in a role originally written for her mother, Maureen O'Sullivan) should have had a chance for some mischief, but her performance is the film's one drab note. The movie missteps when it decides that her character should finally be the object of our approval. Plowright's performance is so much more engaging that the film's shift toward Farrow falls flat.

In fact, the rattle of plot machinery, which tells us the secret of Miss O'Hare's oddity and why Edwina and Miss O'Hare apparently hate each other, is generally a disappointment. O'Hare's dark secret isn't nearly dark enough, and the story's working-out is thoroughly contrived.

But that's okay, because the preceding 80 minutes or so have the sharpest dialogue and most engaging acting I've seen this year. Widows' Peak may not be a great movie, but it is a great relief.

-- David Theis

Widow's Peak.
Directed by John Irvin. With Joan Plowright, Mia Farrow, Natasha Richardson and Adrian Dunbar.

Rated PG.
101 minutes.

 
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