THE most difficult stories to tell well are the simple ones. If intense conflict is absent, a film has to rely on the quality of its ideas and the dimensions of its characters to drive the viewer's interest.
"Skylark" (airing Feb. 7, CBS - check local listings) is a sweet, modest film with good, rich characterizations. If it's a tad sentimental from time to time, well, it's also a tad more thoughtful and compassionate than the vast majority of television films. A sequel to last years's "Sarah, Plain and Tall," "Skylark" boasts the same terrific cast. (Glenn Close and Christopher Walken star.)
Americans have been trained by all their TV- and movie-watching to expect a certain amount of excitement in their films. So it was a surprise when a quiet little film like "Sarah, Plain and Tall" turned out to be a hit when it aired two years ago.
Well, maybe not so surprising. Perhaps a large segment of society is tired of the old formulas, the dysfunctional families, the disease-of-the-week soaps, the scandals, madness, bathos, and endless violence. "Sarah" gave us a story about kind, decent people whose hearts and minds were entirely intact. Theirs was the ordinary daily drama of communication built out of respect - despite radically different temperments.
Sarah, a Maine spinster, becomes a kind of mail-order bride (circa 1908) to Jacob, a Kansas widower with two children. The children take to her, but Sarah and Jacob have to pierce the veil of personal differences before they fall in love. "Sarah, Plain and Tall" was about finding purpose and love within a family. "Skylark" is much more concerned with marital love blossoming and deepening.
The story begins two years after "Sarah" ends. A loving wife and stepmother, Sarah's fortitude and love are tested when a drought threatens to wipe out the farm. After a fire burns their barn, Jacob insists that she take the children and return to Maine for a while. He stays behind to wait for rain and protect the farm. Back home in Maine, Sarah's stepchildren enjoy their new extended family (Sarah's wonderfully eccentric aunts), and Sarah examines her life and her feelings for her husband.
The story contains no convolutions of plot. In fact, the story line is so simple, it's easy to anticipate nearly every development. And yet the story adds up to more than the sum of its parts.
Rare indeed are the tales of married affection. Love stories in the movies and on TV generally deal with lovers before or outside of marriage. Married couples may be shown to be happy or devoted to each other but are seldom portrayed as deeply in love. "Skylark" takes on an abiding marital passion blooming after the first blush of newlywed life.
And their love includes his children. The little girl keeps a diary of their life together, referring to her stepmother as "my mother Sarah." There is much tenderness expressed between stepmother and child - and that, too, seems unusual in the media.
Though I winced at cliche lines like "My name is written in the land," "Skylark" succeeds in building a whole atmosphere, giving us a feeling for the character of that Kansas farm life. It's like peering through a keyhole into the past. It isn't just the costumes or the details of anguish accompanying the drought, but the sympathetic community Sarah shares with the other women of the story, and the common courage of daily toil against great difficulties.
The film does have a few problems. Glenn Close, a brilliant and complex acting talent, occasionally loses the viewer with too mannered a sweetness. It's almost a relief when her Sarah breaks down hysterically, preventing her husband from killing a thirsty coyote who wandered onto the property to drink from a trough. I think a stronger director might have restrained her in those few scenes when she tries too hard to be lovable.
But through most of the picture what Ms. Close aims for she hits, and she does create an admirable, spirited lady who has discovered a whole universe of love and knows it. Walken is cast against type, and it works. If some of his lines seem a bit unbelievable, he carries them off, bridging the gap between the sentimental and the honestly felt. An unlikely couple, Close and Walken balance each other's peculiarities.
But neither Walken nor Close ever succeeds in convincing me that the land means as much to them as the structure of the story demands. Never mind. The really significant facets of "Skylark" have nothing to do with such little tyrannies as sentimentality over land ownership. What matters here, finally, is what "Skylark" has to say about loving marriage, parenthood, community, and ordinary lives lived well.