Willa Cather’s “My Antonia” arrives on the small screen lovingly realized by an extremely talented team in front of and behind the camera. Cather devotees may have justifiable quibbles, but producer/writer Victoria Riskin and director Joseph Sargent have done a fine job of compressing the passion, personal sacrifice, joy and love of the land depicted in what some think is the author’s finest book into a classy telefilm.
An opening-credit montage of old-fashioned still shots nicely sets in motion the narrator’s journey to a new life with his grandparents on the Nebraska prairie, but events unfold with the main characters several years older at the outset than they are in the book.
Neil Patrick Harris is solidly convincing as the orphaned Jim Burden, and he has an effective narrative voice. Elina Lowensohn stands out forcefully as the central figure Antonia Shimerda, a sturdy, spirited child of impoverished Bohemian immigrants.
Oscar winners Jason Robards and Eva Marie Saint make appealing grandfolks. Saint is particularly touching, and Robards is thoughtful and effectively stern, although in the book the character was not so harsh and Jim was not as defiant.
Supporting players also come off well in this finely cast telefilm, including Jan Triska as Antonia’s father and Mira Furlan as her mother, who’s a lot more agreeable in the telefilm than in the novel.
Sargent moves things forward adeptly and chooses the right moments to reveal pivotal character details. The script falls a little short, however, in conveying the land’s strong pull on these characters and their pull on each other; unlike in the book, these elements of the story are not well established until close to the end of the film.
“The best days are the first to flee,” laments the narrating Burden in retrospect, and someone familiar with the book might think the telefilm flees the farm too soon — as impractical dramatically as it might have been for the characters to linger.
But the emotional resonance of the performances helps compensate for the vidpic’s sometimes too-speedy condensing of the action.
Despite their diverging paths, their struggles and sorrows — and even because of them — Antonia observes, “Ain’t it wonderful, Jim, how much people can mean to each other?” when he returns for a visit after many years. And by the time he hears it, we understand how true it is.
Technical credits are superior. Director of photography Robert Primes has captured beautifully the Nebraska settings Cather so vividly described. (The boyhood home of Henry Fonda served as the Burdens’ house in town.) Kudos, too, to production designer James L. Schoppe and costume designer Sandra Culotta for their impressive work.