Widow Peak

Fine Line, the distributor of the British comedy-mystery Widow's Peak, was obviously trying to allure the same kinds of audiences that embraced Mike Newell's comedy of manners, Enchanted April, two years ago.

The two films share some similarities in common: Their stories take place in the l920s and both revolve around women of various ages. Moreover, the indefatigable Joan Plowright, who's quickly becoming one of England's busiest actresses, plays a similar role in both movies: a domineering widow.

High on a hill overlooking Ireland's picturesque village of Kilshannon is Widow's Peak, a cluster of houses owned by a group of gossiping widows. Ruling over them is Mrs. Doyle-Counihan (Plowright), a wealthy matriarch who has buried two husbands. She and her widow friends frequent the graveyard, where their husbands are buried, and from there rush to tea or to the movies. Mrs. Doyle-Counihan owns a telescope, which helps her know all the comings and goings of the place. And because her wimpish son Godfrey (Adrian Dunbar) is the only man allowed to live on Widow's Peak, he becomes, by default, the region's most eligible bachelor.

After a brief opening, the movie introduces its two attractive heroines-antagonists. Miss O'Hare (Mia Farrow) is an impoverished middle-aged spinster and the only non-widow allowed to live on the Peak. For reasons that are initially unknown, Mrs. Doyle Counihan and the other widows have adopted her under their wings. The “Other” woman, Edwina Broome (Natasha Richardson) is also an outsider: an elegantly dressed Americanized English woman. Soon, the jealous Miss O'Hare mobilizes the whole town against Edwina, especially after she engages in a flirtatious affair with Godfrey.

With all the efforts to make a stylish comedy of manners, at the end of the screening I was surprised to read that this slight, old-fashioned movie is based on an original screenplay by Hugh Leonard (best known for his award-winning play Da). The main problem is that the scheming of Miss O'Hare and Edwina against each other lacks the resourceful malice and wit to make their battle fun to watch.

For such material to be effective, it calls for a director who has facility for comedy. But British filmmaker John Irving, who directed Hamburger Hill, one of the best Vietnam movies, and the acclaimed political intrigue, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, seems unable to find the proper rhythm for this confection and subsequently his unmodulated movie drags.

Irving, however, elicits good performances from his able cast. It's always a pleasure to watch Joan Plowright, an eccentric British actress in the tradition of the grand old dames; in a decade, she will probably play the roles that made the late Edith Evans famous. Here, Plowright's grand, though effortless, acting bears resemblance to her work last year in The Summer House and two years ago in Enchanted April.

In a shrewd career move, away from the Woody Allen roles, Farrow plays a resilient, feisty woman with a deceptively frail demeanor and sensitive facade. Some ten or fifteen years ago, Farrow was going to play the Natasha Richardson part and her real-life mother, veteran actress Maureen O'Sullivan, her own role. Richardson is flamboyant in a superficial manner and her accent is a tad too bearing, but she too has good moments. The movie qualifies as passable TV or video fare in its Masterpiece Theater sensibility and style.