The pairing of Steve Martin and 19th-century novelist George Eliot seems about as likely an artistic union as Oliver Stone adapting Louisa May Alcott. Yet A Simple Twist of Fate – inspired by Silas Marner – betrays no tell-tale strains of clashing sensibilities. Martin leavens the material somewhat, but this is a faithful, heartfelt, somber piece about family and responsibility.
Pic’s twist involves the proverbial child abandoned at the doorstep. Dour, reclusive furniture-maker Michael McCann (Martin) finds meaning in his life through his care of an infant girl. The baby’s biological dad is John Newland (Gabriel Byrne), the wealthiest man in the county, who is primed for a political career.
Over the course of a decade, we see the girl, Mathilda (Alana Austin), evolve into a bright, precocious child. Her blossoming also brings out the best in McCann. But Newland finds himself becoming increasingly possessive. Eventually, he goes to court to win back custody in a bitterly contested trial.
Byrne gives a multitextured performance as the villain of the piece. Austin is genuinely winning as the girl, and Laura Linney, as Byrne’s show wife, conveys a much-appreciated intelligence and depth. Overall, it is a polished, adult film.