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One True Thing

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: One True Thing

Starring: Meryl Streep, Renee Zellweger
Director: Carl Franklin
Rated: R
RunTime: 127 Minutes
Release Date: September 1998
Genre: Drama

*Also starring: William Hurt, Tom Everett Scott, James Eckhouse

Review by Mark OHara
No Rating Supplied

There is enough dysfunction among the Gulden family members to fill the plotlines of two or three television dramas for an entire season. What makes the film refreshing and watchable is that the director does not over-reach in portraying emotional moments. Never does the film fall into unforgivable sentimentality; never does it sketch a character in purely black or white.

Director Carl Franklin's toughest task must have been getting right the terrible and delicate shadowing in the backgrounds of the characters' lives. The Gulden family has so much going for it - a Victorian mansion an hour or so outside of New York City, a house made perfect and picturesque by Kate (Meryl Streep). There is Kate's husband George (William Hurt), owner of a National Book Award, respected essayist and chair of the English Department at Langhorne College, no Harvard but a respectable small pond. The Guldens' two children are Brian (Tom Everett Scott), a college student, and Ellen (Renee Zellweger), a Harvard grad and rising writer at a New York magazine. When Ellen's cancer intrudes suddenly on their lives, and George asks Ellen to resign her responsibilities in the City and care for her mother, the story unfolds and the emotions unload.

It's a safe guess that Meryl Streep did not require much coaching. She is brilliant, her angular features shining in her Dorothy costume (she even clicks her ruby-slippered heels!) that she sports for her husband's birthday party. So much of Streep's acting is subtle, telegraphing her character's thoughts and making so many words unnecessary. Streep should be a shoo-in for another Oscar nomination. Although Ellen seems very put off by her mother's domestic prowess, she is forced by necessity to assume her mother's household duties. This mother-daughter relationship is the key one in the story. Two of the film's most wrenching scenes feature these women: one at a town gathering - perfectly accented by a lingering camera shot; the other in Kate's bedroom, a cathartic scene that is at once a confession and an absolution. Here Carl Franklin demonstrates his timing, intuition and experience.

In the novel on which the film is based, Anna Quindlen crafts Ellen as a remote intellectual, looking down her nose at her housebroken mother, while looking up at her writer-god father. Zellweger fills in this role well. She is wonderful in scenes involving a disastrous meal; notwithstanding, Ellen is inducted into her mother's women's group, the "Minnies." Ellen's reluctance slowly gives way not only to an acceptance of the hard housework, but to an appreciation of Kate's diligence in keeping the Gulden family running so smoothly. For much of the film Zellweger, stone-faced, watches her parents' lives altered for good. When it counts, though, she delivers "the right thing to do."

The screenplay, by Karen Croner, preserves much of Quindlen's clever dialogue. It also adds new pieces that portray the characters in bleak lighting. For instance, Professor George Gulden comes off as pompous, a phony who relies on a couple of quotes, one stolen, to impress his listeners. Also added are memory strobes in which Ellen remembers her younger father, full-bearded, buying her ice cream and carrying her atop his shoulders. It's not difficult to admire a film that takes even minor risks, like these flashbacks. William Hurt's George is just as complex as Ellen. His actions are often detestable, unthinkable for a man whose wife is terminally ill. But we also see qualities that go a long way toward redeeming him, and in the end we witness George and Ellen sharing a remarkable epiphany.

Symbolism in the picture is noticeable but not heavy-handed. We follow the seasons from fall through a dreary winter. In an uncharacteristic, medication-induced rage, Kate shatters plates whose pieces Ellen later uses in a mosaic project started by her mother. Finally, mother and daughter switch roles. Together with other moving scenes, the product is a fine adaptation of Quindlen's compassionate work.

If not for the uttering of a forbidden word three times, this R-rated film may have been a more accessible PG. (Even if the word were included one time, wouldn't there be a PG-13 rating?) There is no nudity, only brief references to sex, certainly no violence. Many children will miss a well-drawn drama about a family, because someone decided not to sacrifice verbal realism. Oh, well.

Copyright 2000 Mark OHara

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