Meryl Streep is today's busiest actress, with a pair of new movies this season: "One True Thing," opening today, and "Dancing at Lughnasa," due in a couple of months. "Dancing" is the more eagerly anticipated of the two, since it's based on Brian Friel's popular play, a favorite with many theatergoers.
"One True Thing" is the better movie, though, using imaginative filming and deeply felt performances to transform a soap-opera story into an affecting screen experience.
Streep plays Kate Gulden, a smart but modest woman who has devoted her life to her ambitious daughter, Ellen, her lackadaisical son Brian, and dominating the household - her egotistical husband, George, who places his needs ahead of every other priority. Each member of the family is challenged when Kate is diagnosed with a serious illness, requiring new degrees of care and concern from all around her.
Ellen passes the test by downgrading her big-city career and returning home to nurse her mother. George professes much solicitude for Kate, but his self-centered habits are too ingrained to be overcome in a hurry.
Already distressed at the waning of her professional life, Ellen finds herself caught in the crossfire between her parents and in a conflict between her own adult personality and long-ago memories awakened by her renewed closeness to a very difficult father.
A seasoned professional to her bones, Streep always seems willing to give up her own spotlight for the sake of a larger ensemble. Her portrayal of Kate is remarkable not only for its lack of movie-star glamour, but also for its untiring sense of balance, allowing Rene Zellweger's moving performance as Ellen to become the story's driving force.
William Hurt rounds out the principal cast with his most stirring work in a long time, making George's complex personality as engaging as it is aggravating - and injecting his scenes with an emotional depth that compensates for some regrettably shallow touches in the screenplay, written by Karen Croner from Anna Quindlen's novel.
Carl Franklin has directed "One True Thing" with a sure and sensitive touch, showing a stronger flair for domestic drama than for the crime-centered action of his previous pictures.
This is not a happy tale, and its ending will have moviegoers reaching for every handkerchief they can find. But its compassion is as clear as the talents of the folks who made it.
* 'One True Thing' is rated R; it contains explicit scenes of illness and suffering, as well as drinking and vulgar language.