Finney's charm delights in 'Silas'

Tales of an affectionate uncle; 'Bernard Tapie' lives the American dream in France

"Silas is an old country rogue," says Albert Finney of his role in Masterpiece Theatre's My Uncle Silas (PBS, Nov. 26, 9-11 p.m., check local listings). But, of course, Silas is much more than that. He's a generous, kind, and affectionate man who cares more for others than his critics would admit. That's why we care about him - not just because he's a fun-loving rascal.

We see him through the adoring eyes of his grandnephew, Ned (played by Joe Prospero, a fascinating little fellow), who appreciates his grand uncle's attentions and general rambunctious love of life. Young Ned comes to stay for his summer holidays, and everywhere he looks, his Uncle Silas unfolds a sense of wonderment.

Silas embroiders his stories for the lad's benefit, but clearly it's the old man's spirit that counts. Based on the semiautobiographical novel by British author H.E. Bates, the five short vignettes are set in Northamptonshire, Britain, a few years before the first World War.

In "The Wedding," Silas's only son, Abel, is about to wed a lovely lady's maid from the local noble's estate, when Ned, his aunties, and uncle arrive for the ceremony.

Abel has butterflies, so Silas assures him that marriage is the most natural thing for a man and woman to do. Then, Silas recalls with poignant tenderness his own wedding day with Abel's mother. But it takes young Ned to flush Abel out of his basement hiding place with the assurance that beautiful Georgina will die of a broken heart if Abel fails to appear at the church.

The day ends happily with a grateful bride kissing her dear father-in-law in thanks for his kindness. Despite his disreputable habit of drinking homemade brew, Silas's chief characteristic is kindness.

In "Queenie White," Silas persuades the young wife of a miserly hotelkeeper to take a day off at the beach with him. Nothing scandalous - just a good time for a woman who has been ignored and exploited by her own husband.

When Queenie stands up to her husband, Silas eggs her on. "I'm a woman, a person, not just a drudge," says she. Silas's love for women is never expressed in lechery - he treats them with respect and affection.

The last three stories carry the same stamp of rascally behavior and good intentions. And through it all, Finney (seen most recently in the films "Traffic" and "Erin Brockovich") manages to wink and smirk at the same time he conveys affection for his nephew Ned, his son, his daughter-in-law, and a bevy of mature beauties, while showing sorrow for his lost love. Finney is a marvelous, charismatic actor - equally at home with brash, boisterous extravagant action as with a quiet, subtle, and thoughtful performance. He wasn't the first choice for the role. But it's hard now to imagine anyone else as Silas.

* * *

Who is Bernard Tapie? (Sundance Channel, Nov. 30, 9-10 p.m.) - "Who cares?" might be the initial response. And though it's hard to know whether to laud filmmaker Marina Zenovich's perseverance in tracking her subject or abhor her obsession with this French eccentric, this peculiar documentary turns out to be absorbing and revealing.

What it reveals has more to do with French society today than it does with its subject. Tapie would never speak to the camera, never sit still for an interview. But he is one of the few heroes of the working classes in France today - a self-made man, singer, businessman, politician, manager of a French soccer team, bankrupt, jailbird, and finally, an actor (first in Claude Lelouch's 1996 "Men, Women: A User's Manual" and then a stage star).

Ms. Zenovich is an American who became fixated on Tapie after the Lelouch film. She made repeated trips to France to find out about the rascal and interviewed Lelouch and many others, including Tapie's son, modern historians, and culture commentators.

What slowly emerges is a sympathetic portrait of a complex man - a rich man who started poor, a leftist politician, and friend of Fran├žois Mitterand, a family man, a man who may have been victimized by unscrupulous politicians.

But Tapie also bribed soccer players on opposite teams to throw matches.

Those who defend him say, oui, he is unscrupulous - but so is everyone else in power.

More important to French working folk, Tapie bucked the system. Several interviewees point out that there is no American dream in France.

Class lines are wide and hard to cross. Few avenues lead to success unless one comes from the right side of the tracks, goes to the right schools, and so on.

One of those avenues is show business, and that is where Tapie began. But at some point, he jumped the showboat and made a habit of buying up failing businesses, fixing them, and reselling them. He made huge profits and went on to politics and soccer. His varied career is marked by a certain daring and roguish talent to seduce and manipulate large groups of people.

Zenovich tells the story of her quest to find Tapie and uncover his secrets. Through much of the film, she seems like a flake herself, at one point even asserting that she is "not a stalker" - this, as she haunts his front door.

Still, her interviews are riveting, the editing strong, and the subject intriguing - partly because, as one informant puts it, Bernard Tapie is the American dream in France.

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