Oprah drama illuminates; mob series grips

Anyone who has tuned into Oprah Winfrey's Book Club selections on her afternoon talk show knows how she succeeds in inspiring a love of reading. But she goes a step further when she turns a favorite book (never one from the book club, though) into a film. Oprah Winfrey Presents: Amy and Isabelle (ABC, March 4, 9-11 p.m.) spins a good bestseller by Elizabeth Strout into an even better movie.

"Amy and Isabelle" arrives in the heart like a poem - a complete experience that resonates in thought long after it's over. Elisabeth Shue stars as an uptight, lonely woman raising a teenage daughter without much inspiration or sensitivity. Wound up in her own shame and loneliness, Isabelle has allowed a gulf to widen between herself and her beloved child.

But when Amy (Hanna Hall in the film "The Virgin Suicides") falls for her math teacher, a manipulative rogue who takes advantage of her youth and inexperience, Isabelle's lifetime of grief and anger explodes - and her wrath descends on Amy. It takes this crisis and then another to unleash the torrents of self-loathing that have built up in Isabelle before healing between mother and daughter can take place.

Shue's layered, powerful performance is heartbreaking, as her character narrates the story (a change from the third person of the book) and lives through Isabelle's somnambulant daily existence spiked by increasing tension.

In an interview with The Monitor, Shue remarked on the quality of the script and the satisfaction such a complex role afforded her. "There are only a few roles in your life that affect you in a way you can't explain; they go so much deeper than most," she says. "For me it was a rebirth of connecting to acting. It had been five years since 'Leaving Las Vegas,' and though I'm proud of the work I've done since, there was a part of me that was unfulfilled."

After a while, she says, an actor starts to crave that intensity that cuts one to the core and makes one see life differently. "You begin to wonder if you'll ever have that again, and if not, why you should go on acting. Finding 'Amy and Isabelle' regenerated my love of acting. These parts challenge you and help you understand humanity in a better, deeper way."

Shue responded to the deep loneliness of Isabelle - her profound need for love, she says. Because Isabelle feels she has to be an example to her daughter, rather than her friend, she has distanced herself emotionally, and denied her own need for love.

But all the sorrow of these troubled lives has blossomed from an original lie. At one point, Isabelle reflects on how easily ordinary people cause each other such grievous pain - how she had injured a dear woman whom she and her parents had loved, and how, without meaning to, she has injured her daughter. It comes to her as a revelation. It comes to us as the same.

It is only when Isabelle finally opens up to two women at work that she is empowered to tell Amy the truth about her history at last. "Without this friendship, she would never have been able to change," Shue says.

Change in Isabelle precipitates change in Amy. Hall is as stunning as a Botticelli angel in her long, golden curls, and wide, innocent eyes. The two beauties are marvelous together, creating a stifling atmosphere of alienation at first and a luminous intimacy at last.

If "Amy and Isabelle" is a long look into the depths of female relationships and conscience, The Sopranos is immersed in a deviant macho culture. For those who haven't seen the HBO series (which begins its new season with double episodes March 4, 9-11 p.m.), it resonates with ancient gangster flicks like "Scarface" and "Public Enemy," and the more contemporary "Goodfellas" and "The Godfather, Part II." It is absolutely engrossing - if one can take the strong language, the misogyny, the racism, the violence, and the sexual situations.

Talk about "made men" (mafia members)! The inescapable banality of evil is the subject of many episodes. These are petty bullies shoving women around and "whacking" competitors and stoolies with an icy efficiency born of much practice and no conscience. But apart from being frightening, these guys are all so boring (though the writing is gripping). All they think about is money and vice. Imagine spending an evening with one of them - fuggedaboudit.

Then, too, they are all hypocrites as well as bullies - "smiling in your face, a man can still be a villain," says one of the "soldiers," knowing that his twin brother has been "iced" by the boss. When Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) loses the mother he hated, his cohorts pretend to extend sympathy, and he pretends to accept it. "Whadayagonnado? Ya pick up the pieces and ya move on." Even their fatalism is phony.

And that's the point. "Sopranos" wouldn't hold up if there weren't an underlying conscience at work here. Just telling the truth about this lowlife is revealing.

Tony is the protagonist (like Michael Corleone in "The Godfather"), and he suffers from panic attacks because of the disjunction between his peanut conscience and his hugely malevolent life.

At one point in the new season, he mourns the death of a young prostitute, brutally murdered, who had sought his advice like a father.

Tony tries to be a good father and husband, but routinely cheats on his wife and bullies his kids - both of whom are as cynical and callous as he is. This is not a happy family. They want to be normal, but their entire existence is built on aberration.

The writers employ subtlety, irony, and humor. They repeatedly contrast the hypocrisy and callousness among straight citizens with Tony's more brutal and basic shenanigans.

It's a grim look at society, but for all the foul language and gross situations, there's a cautionary tale hidden in it - so well, in fact, that you may need a divining rod to find it.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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