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April 30, 2014

Widow’s Peak

by Franz Patrick


Widow’s Peak (1994)
★★★ / ★★★★

Kishannon, Ireland is essentially ruled by old widows, spearheaded by self-important Mrs. Doyle-Counihan (Joan Plowright), who likes to pass the time engaging in juicy hearsay. Word has it that the house up on the hill is recently purchased by a young widow named Mrs. Broome (Natasha Richardson), an Englishwoman raised in America. Initially, the ladies are suspicious of Mrs. Broome, but her jocund personality quickly wins them over. But not Miss O’Hare (Mia Farrow). She suspects that the newcomer is up to no good.

“Widow’s Peak,” directed by John Irvin, is a period comedy with an edge. The mystery when it comes to which character is up to something, depending on whose perspective, and why is an interesting affair until the very last scene. Thus, although the plot does not take dramatic twists and turns, pressure bubbles just underneath the surface and we anticipate the inevitable eruption.

The majority of the amusing moments are embedded in social gatherings, especially when Miss O’Hare and Mrs. Broome are within a few feet of one another. When they are not too busy clawing at each other’s throats after a dance, they send smiles on each other’s way yet their eyes communicate an entirely different story. We relate because we have all been in a situation where we enter a room and a person we cannot stand just happens to be there. We pretend it does not bother us and yet the longer we do it, the more unbearable it becomes. It is simply icing on the cake when that person just happens to feel like saying hello and we are forced to acknowledge the pestilence.

The plot is driven by questions. For one, why is Miss O’Hare so intent on hating Mrs. Broome? At least from our perspective, the latter has not done or said anything to the former that might force her to go in a fit of rage. But the more interesting question is why the older rich ladies keep Miss O’Hare in their company. The widows consider having money as a requirement to be in their snobbish circle. Miss O’Hare is far from affluent and she is not as refined as they are. One has to wonder if Miss O’Hare knows something about the widows which, if they happen to come to light, might provoke shame.

The romance between Miss O’Hare and Con Clancy (Jim Broadbent), the town dentist, needs further detail. Farrow and Broadbent have very little chemistry, possibly due to the age difference also acknowledged in the film, so I found it necessary that they have more scenes together to prove to us that they are a good fit for each other. When Miss O’Hare eventually gets the short end of the stick and is consistently humiliated in front of people, Clancy is the one who rushes to comfort her. Due to a lack of meaningful scenes between them, Clancy comes across as more like a contrivance of the plot rather than a complete character, a man with his own opinions and ideas.

The power of “Widow’s Peak,” based on the screenplay by Hugh Leonard, is its subtle dialogue. For example, I enjoyed the way the mood suddenly changes from snarky to grim depending on what is said coupled with the number of beats between words uttered. The melding of a period comedy and thriller elements is very strange but the filmmakers are able to make it work somehow. Our curiosity in terms of what is really going on underneath the social pleasantries inspires us to dig a little deeper.

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