Some years ago, I once worked on an assignment with Colm Toibin, the guy who wrote the novel upon which tonight's film is based. It's a beautiful novel and friends tell me the TV adaptation is quite good. For those of you in the US, if you get the chance, try to watch it tonight. It's a rarity on the non-cable broadcast networks these days: adult, intelligent drama.
'Lightship': A Beacon in a Vast Wasteland
By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 4, 2004
"The Blackwater Lightship," a touching new movie starring Angela Lansbury and airing on CBS tonight, tells a thoughtfully and affectingly bittersweet story. And in a way, the medium is the message, because the manner in which "Lightship" is being presented, the place it occupies on the prime-time schedule, emphasizes the bitter over the sweet.
That is, CBS has apparently taken pains to keep the bittersweet away from what might be called the bitter sweeps.
Beautifully shot and elegantly acted, this 218th presentation of television's invaluable "Hallmark Hall of Fame" misses being part of the February sweeps by just one day; the intense rating period (November and May are the other major months in the process) starts Thursday night. Hallmark films, traditionally upholding the highest if not the sexiest standards in TV drama, are also traditionally shown on Sunday nights, the big viewing night of the week. But not this time.
It seems painfully clear that CBS didn't want "Blackwater Lightship," whose major characters include people over 50 -- even over 60! -- dragging down demographics on the first Sunday night of the February sweeps, so the film was shunted off to tonight (at 9 on Channel 9). It's no tragedy, nor even an outrage. It's a credit to the network that the film was made at all. And yet it seems such a sad sign of the times that the production wasn't deemed edgy or hot or sufficiently youth-oriented to take its rightful place in the scheme of things.
Janet Jackson having her clothes ripped off by Justin Timberlake, now that's youth-oriented. That's the new brand of Sunday night fare. Though Lansbury ruled Sunday night on CBS for years with "Murder, She Wrote," the program's demographics became a worry to CBS well before it finally closed up shop. It was, ironically, an irksome smash hit for the network to endure.
Whatever the ratings outcome for "Blackwater Lightship" (too arty a title for a TV movie), it's a movie that stands way out from the crowd, covering subjects and characters that lend themselves to sentimentalization and overwrought melodramatics but scrupulously avoiding such pitfalls. Its virtues are positive; characters that may seem merely sketched on the printed pages of the script (by Colm Toibin, who wrote the novel) burst forth in the full bloom of truth as portrayed by an exceptional cast and directed with a steady hand by John Erman.
One of the principal characters in the film has AIDS, but though the disease figures in the story, this isn't really a drama "about" AIDS, any more than HBO's recent triumph "Angels in America" was restricted to AIDS-related themes. As it happens, Erman directed one of the first TV dramas to deal with AIDS, and it really was about the illness and the effects it had on its victims and on members of their families. That was "An Early Frost," all the way back in 1985.
In "Blackwater Lightship," Lansbury has bravely and disarmingly deglamorized herself and departs radically from her usual TV image; she plays Granny, an earthy and feisty grand dame ("I'm old, and I can say what I like") who lives by the sea in Ireland and has a view that seems to have floated in out of an idyllic dream. Maybe it's a personal gift from God, except she's so iconoclastically contrary that she says she's tired of looking at the sea and wants the house remodeled so she can gaze inland for a while.
She keeps a switchblade in the house in case of intruders.
Anyway, the setting is indescribably beautiful. Little wonder her grandson Declan (Keith McErlean), in the advanced stages of AIDS, has come home to die in this setting of coziness and majesty. The film really isn't about him, though, but about the three generations of women who are there to look after him and in the process treat old wounds they've inflicted on one another. Dianne Wiest is Lily, Granny's daughter and Declan's mother, whose compassion for her son is, sadly, inhibited by prejudices and provincıalısm. Her daughter, Helen (Gina McKee), definitely more bitter than sweet, holds a grudge against her mother so deep that it would appear to be irreparable.
Declan moves into Granny's house early in the film, and the story progresses in the present day and through a series of flashbacks that trace the family's decline into dysfunction -- the death of Declan's father, the possessiveness of Lily, the awful rift made worse when Helen refuses to invite her mother to her wedding. Estrangement progresses as if it, too, were a disease for which there is no cure, and the script avoids the tackiness of a pat happy ending while still giving us cause for hope before we turn off our little television sets and go to bed -- or return to the banalities of "real life" and watch the weather report.
Two friends of Declan's who come uninvited to Granny's house to help him through the difficult final weeks sound the only false notes in the script. They seem like a pair of goody-goodies, given to self-righteousness and sanctimony. Not that the women don't need a good talking-to, each in her own way -- though it does seem as if Granny, left to her own devices, could straighten the whole thing out by herself if only there were a little more time.
As the film progresses, we see humanity even in the harsh characters and the mercy that may be hidden in what seems like cruelty, or something awfully close. "The Blackwater Lightship" is a drama about adults experiencing crises that are profound and full of resonance. As sad as moments in the film are, it's perhaps just as sad that this kind of drama seems doomed to near-extinction on commercial television as networks lower their sights and standards to meet the competition from cable. Noise replaces sound, glare replaces light, heat replaces warmth.
Maybe it's reading too much into the drama -- and its placement on the schedule -- to see it as part of the passing of an era, but more and more the commercial networks appear to be abdicating a long-held responsibility to HBO, Showtime and other cable channels. Even if that's all too true, there is still enjoyment and enrichment to be had from the drama at hand. The 218th Hallmark Hall of Fame is easily worthy of the previous 217.
Intelligent drama tonight on CBS
Started by Jaelle , Feb 04 2004 10:23 PM
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