Appellate Judge Amanda DeWees has a new ambition: to be the exotic new resident in a sleepy little Irish village.
"The woman, I always say, is born to widowhood. It is her natural vocation. The woman is incomplete until himself is six feet under."—Clancy
Widows' Peak is a bit like lemon meringue pie: lightweight, even fluffy, but with just enough tartness to prevent it from becoming cloying. The Irish setting gives it charm, the presence of such reliable actors as Joan Plowright (101 Dalmatians) and Mia Farrow (Rosemary's Baby) gives it substance, and an intriguing plot gives it a surprising dash of Agatha Christie tension. If you enjoy lightweight British fare like Waking Ned Devine but haven't yet discovered this gently quirky comedy, you may be in for a treat.
Facts of the Case
The little Irish town of Kilshannon specializes in widows—so much so that it is jokingly known as "Widows' Peak." The strong-willed leader of the ladies in black, magisterial old Mrs. Doyle-Counihan (Joan Plowright), makes sure that everything is run according to her notions of propriety. This includes keeping her son, Godfrey (Adrian Dunbar), obediently at her beck and call, and putting a damper on the courtship between eccentric Miss O'Hare (Mia Farrow), who is tolerated as a kind of honorary member of the widows' circle, and lovestruck dentist Clancy (Jim Broadbent, Moulin Rouge).
But when a sexy young widow named Edwina Brougham (Natasha Richardson, The Parent Trap) moves into town, the predictable routine is disrupted beyond repair. This wealthy, attractive new resident makes a big hit with Mrs. D-C and her son, but she instantly rubs Miss O'Hare the wrong way. Is it because Mrs. Brougham is English, and therefore anathema to her fiercely Irish neighbor? Or is there truth in Miss O'Hare's pronouncements that the new widow is not what she seems? The ill will between the two women escalates into public quarrels, vandalism, potentially dangerous accidents, and scandalous revelations, which will culminate in a heated confrontation—and accusations of murder.
Widows' Peak has been compared to Enchanted April (1992), and there are some superficial similarities, not least of which is the presence of Joan Plowright and Jim Broadbent. Both also take place in 1920s Britain and have a similarly gentle sense of humor. Carl Davis's music for Widows' Peak sometimes even recalls the score (by Richard Rodney Bennett) for the earlier film with its use of harp chords. In terms of story, however, the two films are quite different. Although fans of one film are likely to be receptive to the other, Widows' Peak is less contemplative and more plot-driven than is Enchanted April.
The greater energy that characterizes Widows' Peak is evident from the opening sequence, in which we see Mrs. D-C barreling through the little town of Kilshannon in her auto (chauffeured by her cigar-smoking maid/companion), blithely unconcerned with passersby who fall afoul of her wheel guards. (It's their fault for getting in her way.) She waves and nods regally, secure in her status as the mistress of all she surveys. Plowright is perfection in this kind of role, and she seems to enjoy herself greatly here. Mrs. D-C is probably heading for a come-uppance after years of complacently running everyone's lives, but we can't help enjoying her even as we recognize how stifling her rule is to some in Widows' Peak.
One of those who has experienced the iron rod of Mrs. D-C is Catherine O'Hare. An almost childlike soul, Catherine doesn't conform to the other ladies' rigid standards of appearance and behavior, and is often seen flitting around on her bicycle. There's a hint of mystery surrounding her acceptance in Mrs. D-C's circle. Is blackmail involved? That's what newcomer Edwina Brougham begins to wonder, when she sees how Catherine's rude, abrupt behavior toward her is tolerated. Catherine's surprisingly violent antagonism toward the newcomer, which the indignant Edwina begins to reciprocate, creates an enjoyable degree of suspense, which pays off in a series of effective revelations and a delicious ending.
I was impressed with how well the cast handled the demands of the Irish accent, although it took some getting used to; I ended up going back to re-view the first scene between Clancy and Godfrey after my ear had become attuned to the accents. Everyone here acquits themselves well and calibrates their performances to the appropriate tone—very light and humorous at first, becoming gradually more serious over the course of the film as dictated by the plot, yet never going so far as to become glum or over-earnest. Richardson brings a nicely judged hint of mockery to her scenes, as if Edwina knows something that the inhabitants of Widows' Peak don't…or perhaps she's just enjoying how obviously they fawn over her wealth and beauty. (Whether there's more behind her knowing demeanor I will leave the viewer to determine.) Broadbent is charming—which he isn't often allowed to be—as the boyish, tippling dentist who adores Catherine with his whole heart. Mia Farrow brings an effective depth to Catherine, who seems almost simple at first but has surprising reserves of anger and strength; she does look a smidgen young for her character—perhaps since the role was reportedly written for her mother, Maureen O'Sullivan—but that's also due in part to the decisions made regarding her hair and costuming. She also doesn't bring as much power to her pivotal monologue as I'd like to see, but in just about every other respect she and the rest of the cast do fine work.
I don't want to comment in detail on the twists the plot takes, since doing so would spoil the viewer's pleasure in discovering them, but I will say that the darker undertones are entirely appropriate. Although Widows' Peak stays a pleasant, whimsical comedy, there are consequences for characters' actions that many such nostalgic comedies don't explore. We're accustomed to the figure of the bossy grande dame who runs the town, but we aren't often encouraged to consider the darker side of such a character imposing her standards—and her will—on all those in her orbit. The denouement of Widows' Peak explores this avenue satisfyingly, yet not bitterly—a deft bit of balancing ably carried off by director John Irvin and the cast.
Although the disc has attractively designed menus, the film's theatrical trailer is the only real extra; a sequence of unrelated trailers does nothing to enhance the experience. Audiovisual quality is very good all around, with a clean, vivid anamorphic picture and particularly fine audio. Both the DTS and the 5.1 surround mixes offer a pleasantly immersive experience, bringing the village to life for the viewer, with no aural interference. Dialogue is well balanced, and the accents are the only potential obstacles to the listening experience.
It's a pleasure to see this overlooked bit of whimsy arrive on DVD. More of a comedy than a mystery, it may tax the patience of viewers who expect a full-blown whodunnit, but viewers who enjoy soaking up the small-town Irish atmosphere of the 1920s will find much to delight them. Beautiful location photography and attractive production values—including some gorgeous costumes for Natasha Richardson—offer added pleasure. Widows' Peak is like a pleasant vacation from modern life, and like the best vacation spots, it gives us a lovely time during our stay but doesn't make us want to move there.
The ladies of Kilshannon seem to have been premature in their suspicions. All parties are released on their own recognizance, and Mrs. D-C is ordered to pay court costs.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: New Line
• Theatrical Trailer
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