Judge George Hatch thinks that "maybe a dingo ayte'chor baybee."
"They're talking murder here, Ellie, and the Amish don't fight back. Katie is going to end up in prison, and the family is just going to say, 'It's God's will.' She needs a good lawyer."
Even though that dreaded logo, "A Lifetime Original Movie," was emblazoned across the top of the keepcase, I admit to taking on Plain Truth simply because it starred the beautiful Mariska Hargitay. Hargitay is best known as Det. Olivia Benson on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, an emotionally demanding role that earned her two Emmy nominations, and this year won her a Golden Globe for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series.
Hargitay's Benson is gentle and understanding with rape victims and abused children, but she's also tough-as-nails when it comes to taking down a perp. Like CSI, SVU is one of the few shows that doesn't present the female lead as smart but oh-so-fragile. Nor does it allow her to become a "damsel in distress" to be rescued by her male partner. Benson is easily on a par with the gutsy and equally sensitive Det. Elliot Stabler (Christopher Meloni, Oz) when it comes to anything physical—like tearing down walls—or dangerous—she's either in front of him, or right by his side.
I had no idea what Plain Truth was about, and didn't even read the plot capsulization. I just wanted to see the actress in another role, so I popped in the DVD, sat back and took notes.
Plain Truth comes across as a combination of Peter Weir's Witness, in which a detective goes undercover in an Amish community, and Norman Jewison's Agnes of God, where a young nun is discovered with a dead baby in her cloistered convent room.
When an 18-year-old Amish girl, Katie Fitch (Alison Pill, A Separate Peace), is accused of murdering her newborn (or stillborn) baby and disposing of the body, Philadelphia defense attorney Ellie Harrison (Mariska Hargitay) is called upon to take the case. Of course, here we get the old saw of Ellie having planned a vacation and taking a long break from her job (This usually happens to retiring policemen: Think of Morgan Freeman in Se7en). But Ellie is drawn in by the unusual details. Agreeing to represent Katie, she plans to get her out of custody on bail, and take her long-desired vacation before the case goes before the court. When bail is denied, Ellie suggests that a "guardian" be appointed. Since a "legal guardian" can't be a relative, Ellie is assigned this responsibility.
Ellie moves into the Fitch home, and is forced to adjust herself to the Amish lifestyle. She can't call anyone on her cell phone, or use her laptop once the batteries have run low because there's no electricity. She has to deal with a 20-minute trip to the nearest town to recharge and make contacts. She also has to convince the Fitch family that's she's there to help their daughter. Sarah (Kate Trotter, Beyond Borders), Katie's mother, is most gracious, while Jacob (Alec McClure, True Blue), the father, openly resents Ellie's presence.
Ellie and Katie finally bond when they go on a trip to the "big city" of Lancaster, Pa., and Ellie buys her a hoagie. Katie begins to open up about the circumstances of her pregnancy, but the details still remain vague. Ellie contacts Dr. "Coop" Cooper (Jonathan LaPaglia, Seven Days), requesting a psychiatric evaluation and, wouldn't you know, in accordance with the Lifetime formula, they are ex-lovers, still trying to reconcile their past.
Kudos to Lifetime because, surprisingly, Plain Truth devotes only about 15 minutes to Ellie's and Coop's personal relationship, but rather keeps the focus of this TV film on track by concentrating on the birth and disappearance of the baby, and the legal ramifications that ensue.
Plain Truth is so well-done and so tightly adapted by screenwriter Matthew Tabak (The Stranger Beside Me) from Jodi Picoult's novel, I hesitate to divulge any further plot twists beyond the first half-hour's worth already revealed. I suggest that you add this DVD to your queue of "must-see" films, in both theatrical releases and those often-demeaned "made-for-TV" flicks. Plain Truth is something special, and deserves that kind of attention.
I'm sure Mariska Hargitay would like to delete some film appearances, like Lake Placid and Ghoulies from her resumé, but her bit part as a barfly-hooker in Mike Figgis's Leaving Las Vegas is memorable. And whatever happened to the sensational Alison Pill who played Katie? Here's a young actress who could easily follow in the footsteps of Kate Winslet in Peter Jackson's Heavenly Creatures.
I'd also like to call attention to director Paul Shapiro for his subtle and sensitive handling of the material—especially considering his latest TV offering, Spring Break: Shark Attack, that required only a concentration on broads, bikinis and blood. Shapiro captured some neat sequences in Plain Truth, and I hope he finds some similarly provocative subject matter for his future projects.
Warner's transfer is more than serviceable for a full-screen, made-for-TV presentation. David Greene's cinematography is especially moody and evocative. The 2.0 Dolby Digital soundtrack is better than expected, and I never had to resort to subtitles. The extras are appreciated, but they were unimpressive and gave me no further insight into the film or Amish life.
They say you can't teach an old dog new tricks, but, apparently, you can take some old film ideas and give them a new twist.
Not guilty! This is a good made-for-TV film that deserves some recognition.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• A Look at Plain Truth with the Cast and Crew
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