Asumptuously produced gem of a film with a refreshing message of moral heroism, “The Summer of Ben Tyler” is as poignant, heartwarming and superbly acted as any of the 189 previous Hallmark Hall of Fame productions.
Director Arthur Allan Seidelman, who also lensed last season’s Hallmark drama “Harvest of Fire,” guides the project with such a sure grasp of the material and the strengths of his players that the result is quite magical. It’s a triumph for all involved, made all the more impressive by the utter simplicity of the story being told.
Two-time Emmy winner James Woods, appearing in his fifth Hallmark drama, stars as Temple Rayburn, a principled lawyer living in the Deep South of 1942 with his willful wife, Celia (the luminous Elizabeth McGovern), and their animated daughter, Nell (Julia McIlvaine).
Temple, being a respected member of his community and a fella of high character, is recruited for political office by well-heeled town kingmaker Spencer Maitland (Len Cariou). But just as Maitland is primed to grease the financial wheels of Temple’s candidacy, the Rayburns are obliged to adopt a slow-witted, recently orphaned young black man named Ben Tyler (Charles Mattocks, in a rich, sensitively wrought performance).
Given the time and place of “The Summer of Ben Tyler,” this act of kindness and compassion is naturally met with incredulity in the Rayburns’ community. Temple’s morals are further tested when moneybags Maitland’s drunken son runs down an elderly woman in a car accident, and the father turns to Rayburn to help him beat the rap in court.
The absence of guile and purity of soul that define Ben Tyler’s humanity serve as the metaphor driving the film, a radiant reminder that doing the decent thing is rarely easy but always necessary.
Robert Inman’s sharply focused script shines like a beacon. Jan Scott’s evocative design work and the seamless photography of Neil Roach and his team, on location in North Carolina, make for a visually captivating work. Tech credits are all first-rate.
But none of it would matter if not for the straw stirring this drink: Woods. He has the uncanny ability to lose himself in a role so completely that he has grown as convincing a saint as he is a villain. And his chemistry with the understated McGovern is surprisingly strong and real.
Oh yes, and one more thing. In Charles Mattocks, a star is born. Bank on it.