Stars: Mia Farrow, Joan Plowright, Natasha Richardson, Adrian Dunbar, Jim Broadbent, Anne Kent. Written by Hugh Leonard. Directed by John Irvin. Rated PG.

A sleepy little rustic town in Europe plays host to a rather odd assortment of citizenry. Part of it is populated by ordinary townsfolk churning out a meager existence in a relatively blissful state. Sectioned off from them are a group of women who have flocked to this locale because they are attracted to spending time with other women like themselves, namely widows. The widows seem to make up an informal aristocracy, as if they had achieved a state of grace merely because they had outlived their husbands. Because it is a genteel society, steeped in tradition and etiquette, the widows feel the need to maintain a sense of decorum in public.

Of course, behind closed doors there is the usual gossiping. The subject of the gossip of late is a beautiful, youngish widow named Edwina (Natasha Richardson) who has only recently taken up residency in the town. Although taken under the wing of the widows' informal leader, Mrs. Doyle Counihan (Joan Plowright), the effervescent Edwina still manages to push the buttons of another widow, Miss O'Hara (Mia Farrow). Edwina can't understand the hatred that Miss O'Hara feels for her and makes every attempt to patch up the rift between them. Miss O'Hara will have none of it.

Eventually, the power struggle between these two women completely overpowers the romantic subplots that both women are engaged in. In fact, the whole situation threatens to erupt when each discovers a dark secret about the other. Miss O'Hara has stated time and again that she believes Edwina is set on killing her so it comes as little surprise that Miss O'Hara turns up missing after one particularly candid confrontation.

"Widows' Peak" plays very much like a "Howards End" or a "Remains of the Day", in tone, look, and demeanor for the first half of the film. Relationships develop, conflicts arise, but they are always handled in a civilized, if not downright antiseptic, manner. I can't say too much about the change that takes place towards the middle of the film, lest I give something away, but suffice it to say that there is an element of mystery to the film. As fate would have it, though, at the point that one realizes that there is something devious going on, it becomes almost immediately apparent just what that something is.

My reaction to "Widows' Peak" is tied to my perception that a change occurred in the film's agenda. At first I was intrigued by film's new undercurrents; but as they started to overpower what had previously been a handsome little adult drama, I became more and more dismayed at the turn the film had taken. Put another way, what had been a unique and satisfying period piece proceeded to develop a rather commonplace conceit.

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