With 236 presentations in 57 years, Hallmark Hall of Fame has seen its share of treacle. But in what could be the franchise’s most respectable season in years, three very different entries all benefit from strong performances and unusually unsentimental treatments: Holocaust-themed “The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler,” starring Oscar winner Anna Paquin; overcoming-adversity drama “Front of the Class”; and “Loving Leah,” a romantic comedy starring Lauren Ambrose.
“Our best ones have a deeper meaning and some sort of social value,” notes Hallmark Hall of Fame president Brad Moore. “Courageous Heart” tells the story of a woman who helped save Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto during World War II, and “‘Front of the Class’ is about a heroic teacher who overcame problems caused by Tourette’s,” Moore points out. “Those are issues that people really respond to.”
According to writer-director John Kent Harrison, for whom “Irena Sendler” marks his sixth project for Hallmark, “empathy for the lead character” is a crucial part of the equation for the largely female audience. “Going into a situation that’s difficult and conquering it in a transcendent fashion is also important, and this story just inspired me. When I first came across it, I was in awe of this woman, and what she did. For me, the Holocaust was the greatest suffering people have ever known, and I knew telling this story would be difficult, but I felt I had to do it.”
Harrison says he then purposely cast younger, “to reach a younger generation who might not know much about the Holocaust.”
Moore reports that Hallmark material comes from everywhere — original stories, plays, the news, but mainly from books. “How do we decide? We pore through mountains of options, and much of it is just instinctive,” he says.
“You go with your gut,” agrees Harrison. “I’m a moth to the flame for danger. If it’s familiar, I’m not that interested, but if I’m afraid of dealing with it, I know I should do it — and that’s what I felt with ‘Irena Sendler.’ “