My companion gleefully grabbed extra napkins on our way into One True Thing: "We'll need these." She sniffled all the way through the movie, when she wasn't out-and-out crying. At the end of the film she turned to me and sneered, really sneered, "What a terrible film."
One True Thing
directed by Carl Franklin
starring Meryl Streep, Renée Zellweger, William Hurt
now playing at the Guild 45th, City Centre, others
It's not a great film. But her sniffles and tears were real. She wasn't alone, either; a wet-faced crowd departed the Oak Tree that evening. Notoriously unsentimental director Carl Franklin (One False Move, Devil in a Blue Dress) had seemed an unlikely choice to bring Anna Quindlen's notoriously sentimental novel of families and loss to the screen. Yet his film remains remarkably true to her book, which tells the story of a young career woman (love that term, it's so Kitty Foyle) who cares for her dying mother. The picture, like the book, is a weepie.
Ellen (Renée Zellweger), an overachieving young reporter at New York magazine, returns home to a small New England college town for her father's birthday. Her contempt for her mother, Kate, is evident even before she's inside the old frame house. Outside on the walk, her brother (Tom Everett Scott) reminds her that the surprise soiree their mom is giving for their dad is a costume party. "I can't do costumes," snaps the black-clad Ellen. "They're just so . . ." "Human?" gibes her brother. "Mom," replies his sister.
Once inside, we find Mom to be a swooping hausfrau, played with set hair, well-padded motherly hips, and a wide, nonstop mouth by Meryl Streep. She's so domestic as to be absurd. Yet she dominates—there's something in her of Thurber's voraciously maternal women. When Ellen, almost proud of her awkwardness in the kitchen, drops a plate, her mother assures her, "Leave that. I can use it for my mosaic table."
As the weekend progresses, it becomes clear that Kate is very ill. Father George (William Hurt), chairman of his department, famous writer, and obviously the parent Ellen emulates, asks his daughter to stay and help take care of her mother. When Ellen protests, he spits out, "Jesus Christ, you've got a Harvard education, but where is your heart?"
As soon as we hear these words, we know this is the question the film must answer. Ellen must—and oh, she will—locate that vital organ. As her mother grows sicker, Ellen grows closer to her and more like her, baking and cleaning and caring for the intellectual father. Guess who lays the last piece in the mosaic table?
Ellen's journey from the life of the mind to the life of the heart is mirrored by her mother's passage into the refining fire of cancer. Kate becomes more down-to-earth, more articulate, and infinitely more powerful. It's this journey, and this performance, that gives One True Thing its moments of real resonance. Streep condescends a little to her character in the opening scenes, overplaying her and laughing at her domestic fussiness, but not out of contempt for the role. It's a clever piece of sleight of hand on Streep's part: When Kate emerges as the heart of the family, her strength is all the more awe-inspiring in light of this early frivolity. Even more impressive is the way we forget about Streep the actress. She manages to give a performance as a powerful mother without reminding us that there's a powerful actress behind there.
A story that deals with a universal theme like the loss of a parent demands a higher level of honesty and understatement from its actors. And the entire cast of One True Thing is up to the task. Even with her knitted cap covering her chemo-ravaged head, Streep never descends into the maudlin. Everyone else seems to follow her lead, delivering the kind of tough, complex, at times deeply unlikable performances that make us believe this family exists, and suffers.
Unfortunately, Franklin allows the film itself to remain well within the category of TV-moviedom. In this realm, the genuinely moving sits cheek-by-jowl with the cheap: You sniffle at the choir singing "Silent Night" during a Christmas treelighting ceremony just as you do at the devastating scene when Ellen must lift her naked, weakened mother from the bathtub. The specific touches of domestic tragedy are compromised by these grand gestures of melodrama—thus the distance between my companion's judgment and her tears.