Though Louisa May Alcott's original short story might have furnished a suitably sappy blueprint for this Hallmark holiday special, the actual production bears little resemblance to its supposed source (Jacqueline Bisset's star part notable for its absence).

Though Louisa May Alcott’s original short story might have furnished a suitably sappy blueprint for this Hallmark holiday special, the actual production bears little resemblance to its supposed source (Jacqueline Bisset’s star part notable for its absence). Instead, scripter Shelly Evans freely modeled her teenage heroine on Jo from Alcott’s “Little Women,” fashioning a surprisingly edgy costumer more revealing of class division than celebratory of family, while helmer Graeme Campbell infuses the tale with richly layered tensions no happy ending can entirely dissipate. Potential Turkey Day perennial, airing Nov. 22, could wield theatrical appeal abroad.

Over-imaginative Tally (Tatiana Maslany), seeking to alleviate her family’s financial woes in the wake of her father’s death, writes to her long-estranged cosmopolitan grandmother Isabella (Bisset), signing the melodramatic missive with the name of her mother, Mary (Helene Joy). When imperious socialite Isabella descends on the rural community, she throws everything into question, her urban sophistication pitted against Mary’s fervent idealism, leaving Tilly in the middle.

Taking little but character names from Alcott’s simple vignette of a rosy-cheeked family’s makeshift Thanksgiving dinner, pic introduces a rancorous conflict firmly rooted in class warfare. Isabella has never forgiven her daughter for running off with a “vagrant” (as she terms Tilly’s stableman-turned-farmer father), and Mary has never forgiven her mother for her lack of sympathy or support.

Pic effects heated quid-pro-quo exchanges, whereby mother and daughter struggle through their long-festering misunderstandings. Such pat learning experiences, however, never become sententious and generally play out in interactions with others, leaving Mary and Isabella’s direct encounters still raw with unprocessed emotion.

Maslany (as the film’s decidedly Jo-like Tilly) brings a boisterous enthusiasm to her role, while Bisset lends an amused openness to her character’s upper-crust arrogance. Joy underscores Mary’s outward serenity with the odd, repressed hysteria of widowhood.

Helmer Campbell, responsible for such dark cult classics as “Murder One” and “Into the Fire” before rechanneling his considerable talents into TV movies, introduces elements of troubling ambiguity amid the snowbound rusticity, rendering Isabella’s intrusion into the virtuous little house on the prairie as more than a little serpentine.

Tech credits are accomplished.

An Old-Fashioned Thanksgiving

Production

A Hallmark Channel presentation of a Muse Entertainment/Automatic Pictures production, in association with WildRice Prods. Produced by Jesse Prupas, Steve Solomon. Executive producer, Michael Prupas. Co-executive producer, Shelley Evans. Directed by Graeme Campbell. Screenplay, Shelley Evans, based on the short story by Louisa May Alcott.

Crew

Camera (color), Michael T. Ness; editor, Jean Beauvoir; music, James Gland; production designer, Tim Bidder; art director, Greg Chow; costume designer, Melanie Jennings; sound, Peter Clements; supervising sound editor, David Herdsman; casting, John Buchan, Jason Knight. Reviewed at Hamptons Film Festival (Spotlight), Oct. 16, 2008. Running time: 89 MIN.

With

Jacqueline Bisset, Helene Joy, Tatiana Maslany, Vivien Endicott-Douglas, Gage Munroe, Kristopher Turner.
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